Cars left idling outside an Augusta elementary school while parents pick up their children are polluting the air and annoying at least one neighbor.

It’s likely that they’re also harming their kids’ education.

Fine-particle air pollution – the kind that comes out of a car’s exhaust – has been linked to an increased risk of heart and respiratory disease, stroke and lung cancer. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, too.

More and more, it’s looking like air quality has a sizable impact on educational outcomes as well.

One recent working paper looked at the aftermath of a gas leak in Los Angeles in 2015. To assuage a worried community, the school district and gas company installed air filters in every classroom, office and common area in all schools within five miles of the leak.

The effort created a natural experiment, allowing researchers to compare test scores where the filters were installed to those just outside the area. They found a positive impact on math and English scores, comparable to that of smaller class sizes.

Those results track with other studies on the cognitive impact of air pollution, and it shows how minor changes at a relatively low cost could make a huge difference in student achievement. The devices installed were $700 commercially available air filters, and change in air quality was rather slight – the gas from the leak had long since ascended into the atmosphere.

People have taken notice of the effects of air quality on kids, who spend more time outside than adults, and who because of their size take in more pollution per pound of body weight than adults and are physically closer to vehicle exhausts.

Last year, the United Kingdom’s public health agency called for a ban on idling cars near schools, citing deaths from air pollution as well as other harms.

A 2013 report from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found that the concentrations of pollutants near schools was high, and the pollution was causing and aggravating asthma in students. A subsequent anti-idling campaign led to measurably better air quality in those areas.

In a campaign of their own, school officials in Augusta say they will put signs near the school discouraging idling. If that doesn’t work, they say, more aggressive steps may be needed.

Every community should join them in thinking about air pollution near schools, for the sake of student health – and their education.


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