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Truth Behind the Headlines: Air pollution spikes linked to lower test results

News is reporting that exposure to air pollution is linked to lower Maths and English test results amongst primary school children.  The story claims that schools that had higher levels of air pollution had a higher percentage of students who tested below average in Maths and English.  


The story reports that the connection between air pollution and brain cell inflammation is well known, and that researchers believe future research should examine if repeated exposure to fine particulate matter might be damaging children’s brains.  

Using our recommended five tips, Global Action Plan reviewed the study:


Questions to ask to get to the truth Our response
1. Does the article refer to a report to back up its claims?

The article refers to the study Effects of PM2.5 on Third Grade Students’ Proficiency in Math and English Language Arts published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 

2. Who is behind the study it refers to?

The cross-department research was completed at the University of Utah.  

3. How fantastical and radical is the claim that is being made?

The researchers wanted to understand if pollution exposures affect test results to the same degree in all schools or if the level of children’s social disadvantage in schools changes the effects.  


The researchers analysed the Maths and English test results of pupils. They then compared this to each school’s air pollution exposure, by analysing data from air pollution monitoring networks. 


Their results showed that peak air pollution exposures were associated with lower test scores and that schools that had higher levels of air pollution had a higher percentage of students who tested below average in Maths and English.   


Their results also showed that schools with a higher proportion of BAME students and from households already experiencing poverty were exposed to higher mean concentrations of particulate matter (PM2.5) than schools serving mainly middle-to-upper-class and predominantly white students.  


So, the researchers removed the impacts of social disadvantage from their results. This showed that it was the frequency of peak exposures that was the factor which had an impact on the students test results (rather than annual average exposure). 

4. What geographical region does the claim refer to?

Salt Lake County, Utah, USA.  

5. What is the sample size of the study?

Researchers looked at third graders (eight and nine year-olds) in 156 schools. 

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