Pollution and child development

In recent years, studies on the detrimental effects of air pollution on children’s development have accumulated and the evidence is very conclusive. Exposure to high levels of micro particles and gases such as nitrogen dioxide has negative impacts on brain development (here, here, here, here, here, here, here), attention and memory (here, here, here, here), respiratory (here, here) and mental health (here) and behaviour (here) of children. It even increases the likelihood of wearing glasses (here) and developing obesity (here). The methodologies of many of these studies are impeccable. For example, the BREATHE study in Barcelona selected 20 pairs of schools that were very similar in terms of family income and educational level, but some located near major traffic routes and others in less polluted areas, and followed the developmental trajectories of the children over several years. The effects of moving from low to high levels of pollution are alarmingly large. In many cases they are equivalent to being born into a family of high or low socio-economic status, one of the main predictors of child development.

Air pollution is a preventable cause of significant developmental problems in childhood. What can we do? Improving air quality in schools is a reasonable priority because children spend so many hours there. An important question is where the most harmful particles and gases we find in school environments come from. There are a number of different sources, including chalk, sandstones or cleaning products, which would be very easy to address. But surely the most significant intervention is to reduce road traffic near schools and school roads (here, here, here, here).

Reducing traffic near schools is a controversial measure because it involves reducing traffic in general. For measures to be taken in this sense there must be not only scientific evidence of its benefits but also a strong social demand. One of the groups that can put pressure on administrations to change school environments are the parents themselves. In fact, in the last year many associations of families articulated around the School Revolt movement have cut off traffic at the school exit to demand safer, quieter and cleaner school environments, but it is difficult to know if there is a real concern among families about this issue. More than a few children drive to school and so perhaps there is a silent majority of families who oppose pacification because it would make it more difficult to get to school by private transport.

To what extent are families concerned about pollution in school environments? Which measures are more or less popular? To provide data on this question, we conducted a survey among schools participating in the Revolta Escolar protests, to which 4,450 families from 70 schools in Barcelona and other surrounding cities responded. The main limitation of this data is that it comes from an urban and self-selected sample in the sense that it was distributed in schools where there is environmental activism. But the sample has two strengths: its size and the fact that these are schools where this debate has taken place as a result of the traffic shutdowns. It is a type of action that sometimes provokes a counter-reaction and therefore these are environments where opinions on this issue are crystallized.

We found first of all that 86% of the people surveyed think that the environmental pollution around their school is excessive and 79% also consider the noise coming from road traffic to be excessive. 80% think that cars and motorbikes go too fast around the school.

Getting to school by car does not seem to be a pressing need in these urban environments: 74% live less than a 15-minute walk from school and only 11% of parents and 7% of mothers take their children by private transport at least once a week. By far the most frequent form of transport is walking. Despite this, the majority do not consider that children should walk to school on their own. 80% consider that the way to school is not safe enough for an 8-year-old child to walk alone or in a group of unaccompanied children. This is significant, because from an evolutionary point of view, children have enough autonomy to make familiar and short journeys at that age.

The survey also asked about support for different specific measures. There is a lot of support (more than 90%) for controlling pollution and noise levels and reducing traffic in streets adjacent to the school. The specific measure with the least support, predictably, is eliminating parking spaces at school entrances, but still 77% support it. Despite possible biases, the data suggest that there is significant concern among families about pollution and that support for government intervention measures is very high. In any case, the study is not closed, and interested schools can participate by writing to enquestarevolta@gmail.com.

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