Let’s stop poisoning ourselves

A horrifying working paper looks at the impact of traffic pollution on students in schools downwind of a major US highway:

We find that attending school where prevailing winds place it downwind of a nearby highway more than 60% of the time is associated with 0.040 of a standard deviation lower test scores, a 4.1 percentage point increase in behavioral incidents, and a 0.5 percentage point increase in the rate of absences over the school year, compared to attending a school upwind of a highway the same distance away

6.4 million American children attend a school within 250m of a highway, according to the researchers.

Children may be particularly susceptible to the carbon monoxide etc. that comes out of exhaust pipes, but really any of us who work or live near traffic should be worried.

If climate change is too abstract, far away or big for us to tackle, this shouldn’t be. The cost-benefit of transport (for starters) is clear and present. At the very least we all need to drive less.

And we’re not just talking about immediate impacts – think of how some of these issues (lower test scores, poor behaviour etc.) compound, as people get labelled troublesome or miss opportunities.

Air pollution, in other words, feeds inequality.

Other papers cited in this study illustrate the breadth of the issue:

…Currie and colleagues found that high levels of carbon monoxide were associated with reduced school attendance… Ransom and Pope (1992) similarly found a relationship between pollution and school attendance, with more small particulate matter in the air associated with more absences… Chang et al. (2016a, 2016b) use hourly variation to show that increased exposure to fine particulate matter decreases productivity per hour of pear packers and call center workers, while Archsmith, Heyes, and Saberian (2018) showed that baseball umpires make more mistakes on days with higher pollution…Herrnstadt and Muehlegger (2015) argue that traffic pollution influences impulse control. They showed that short-term hourly variation in wind direction in Chicago lead to higher crime in areas downwind of highways than on the opposite upwind side…

Also, as an addendum to my last post about randomness and test scores:

Marcotte (2017) used the variation in air quality on different testing days and found that children who took tests on worse days for pollen and fine airborne particulate matter had worse outcomes.

As usual my emphasis.