Children exposed to air pollution on their way to school have stunted cognitive development and memory problems, study finds

There is a possibility that polluted air may be impairing your child’s cognitive function. A new study finds that children who walk to school are exposed to a greater amount of air pollution and thus are at an increased risk of a weakened memory and slowed down cognitive development, as reported by the Science Daily.

Researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) in Spain, analyzed the effect fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which are fine inhalable particles of pollution, and black carbon had on children who walked to school. The team observed more than 1,200 school children between the ages of seven and 10 from 39 schools. All of the participants walked to school everyday. Researchers evaluated their working memory and attention capacity multiple times for a year. Moreover, they calculated the children’s exposure to air pollution based on the estimated levels on the shortest walking route to their school, also for a year.

The findings, published in Environmental Pollution, revealed that there is a link between a reduction in the development of working memory and exposure to PM2.5 and black carbon. Moreover, the study found that boys were much more vulnerable to the effects of PM2.5 and black carbon than girls.

Meanwhile, the researchers did not find any link between exposure to the pollutants studied and attention capacity.

“The results of earlier toxicological and experimental studies have shown that these short exposures to very high concentrations of pollutants can have a disproportionately high impact on health,” Mar Álvarez-Pedrerol, first author of the study and researcher at ISGlobal.

She said that the adverse effects may be specifically targeted in children because their lung capacity is smaller and their respiratory rate is higher.

“The fact that children who walk to school may be more exposed to pollution does not mean that children who commute by car or on public transport are not also exposed to high levels,” Jordi Sunyer, head of ISGlobal’s Child Health Program and co-author of the study, said.

A previous study of The Breathe Project, a project promoting clean air and inspiring healthy communities, found that exposure to traffic-related pollutants in schools was linked with slower cognitive development. It showed that 20 percent of a child’s daily dose of black carbon is inhaled during urban commutes. (Related: Air pollution causes harmful physical changes in the brain.)

In addition, Sunyer noted that they do not intend to discourage children walking or cycling on the way to school because it has health benefits — such as building physical activity into the routine of the children — that are greater than the negative effects of air pollution.

Finally, Álvarez-Pedrerol explained that the key is to “reduce the use of private vehicles for the school run and create less polluted and safer home-to-school routes.”

Enhancing your child’s memory

Working memory is the manipulation of information that is stored by short-term memory. Children use this skill to learn and follow directions. To outweigh the negative effects of air pollution, there are ways to help your children improve their working memory. One of these is to teach your child ways to visualize ideas or thoughts that can help improve his working memory. Moreover, fun activities such as card games can also help develop his working memory. Lastly, finding ways to help your child form associations and connect information can help your child improve his long-term and working memory as well.

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