Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Pre-birth air pollution affects exam marks later

A woman's exposure to various air pollutants during pregnancy affects the academic performance of the child in school and high school exams.

Air pollution is known to affect pregnant women enough to alter the developmental and growth milestones in the children born. However, recent evidence shows that even the exam marks of the children suffered if the mother was exposed to different airborne pollutants during her pregnancy.

A study published in the Journal of Human Resources studied parental exposure to suspended particulate matter in Texas, USA in the year of pregnancy and its effect on high school examination results of the child born. This relationship was statistically significant.

In Santiago, Chile, exposure to carbon monoxide pollution during pregnancy led to poor mathematical and language skills in the children born later in their 4th standard (grade).

Scientists at Uppsala University, Sweden found a reduction in lead exposure through air pollution in early life reduced children’s educational performance, cognitive ability, and later on, incomes.

My Views

  1. The Texas study showed that higher particulate matter in the air during the times of pregnancy somehow led to worsening the academic performance nearly 12-15 years later when the child appeared for its high school examination. While we don’t know if there was a causation relationship (air pollution caused the damage in the child), there definitely was an association (air pollution was associated with the damage in the child).
  2. In the Santiago study, carbon monoxide in the air during pregnancy affected the child’s academic performance in the 4th grade. We don’t know if the gas was inhaled by the mother, which somehow reached the fetus through her blood affecting it. It could also be that the gas affected the mother’s body so much that it could not provide enough nourishment to the fetus to grow properly. If the former was the case, it means the air pollutants are reaching the fetus and affecting it directly. If the latter was the case, it means the mother needs to stay healthy enough to support the growth of the fetus. The former sounds more plausible because the pollutant particles have been detected in the placenta in other studies.
  3. In Uppsala study, the lead contents in the air was shown to affect the academic performance as well as the cognitive ability of the child. This study was possible because years ago, Sweden changed over from petrol (gasoline) mixed with lead to unleaded petrol. Comparing the data for the two periods, the conclusion could be drawn.
  4. Such studies are almost always observational studies, which can tell us if there is an association between the variables. To prove causation, one will need to do case-control study or crossover studies, which are unethical to say the least. How can one knowingly make a woman inhale polluted air to find out if the baby develops normally? So by design, such studies will have to be observational.
  5. The Uppsala study went further to study the effect of worse academic performance on income generating ability of the child. Either the worse academic performance made the children earn less money later in life, or there was something in the reduced ability of the child to perform well in school that also affected its ability to earn good income later.
  6. All these studies show that air pollution will make an unborn life pay the price for the mother’s negligence or ignorance. Considering the amount of money many parents spend on their child’s education, coaching classes, tuitions, and expensive schooling, it is a no-brainer that they spend some money to keep the mother healthy during the months of pregnancy.
  7. The only individual level solutions a pregnant woman has is to shift to a place with no or little pollution during the months of pregnancy or deploy multiple high quality air purifiers in the house, if she cannot shift from her regular home.

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First published on: 10th December 2021
Image credit: Max Fischer on Pexels


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