While many elementary schools have increasingly focused their attention on decreasing rates of bullying and the presence of unhealthy foods in the cafeteria, they may be neglecting one critical issue — the effect air pollution has on children’s developmental health.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the University found that two-thirds of Michigan public schools are located in highly polluted areas, and that high pollution levels strongly correlate to poorer health and academic performance among elementary and middle school students.
After analyzing data for all 3,660 schools in the state, the researchers found that 44.4 percent of Caucasian school children attended schools in areas with the highest level of air pollution, while 81.5 percent of African American students and 62.1 percent of Hispanic schoolchildren attended schools in the most highly polluted areas.
The level of air pollution within two kilometers of each public school in Michigan was based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s geographic micro data. The amount of air pollution was divided into deciles, with the first decile representing areas with the least amount of pollution and the tenth decile considered to be “highly polluted” — including areas like metropolitan Detroit, Grand Rapids and Muskegon.
Scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program — a standardized test that measures academic achievement in schools — that failed to meet English and math standards were used to indicate lower educational performance at the school-wide level, while lower school attendance was used as an indicator of poor health.
The researchers found that high levels of pollution are strongly correlated with both lower scores on the MEAP as well as lower attendance rates, even after taking into consideration other variables like school location and socioeconomic status.
Paul Mohai, a professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment and faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research, said the research has shown strong relations between the amount of air pollution and education levels that can’t be ruled out by other variables.
“The relationships are such that we think the environment quality in and around schools needs to be taken seriously,” Mohai said.
According to Mohai, this is an area of concern because children are more susceptible to being affected by environmental pollution.
“They are vulnerable physically because of their small body size, so they take in more food, water and air per body weight,” he said. “They’re also growing, so it makes their bodies more susceptible to environmental harms.”
Mohai added that the ultimate goal of the research is to develop effective policy regarding pollution in the state of Michigan. In the meantime, Mohai and the study’s co-author Byoung-Suk Kweon, a research investigator at the Institute for Social Research and an adjunct assistant professor in the SNRE, are interested to see if similar findings can be found in other states.
Both Mohai and Kweon plan to expand upon this research by analyzing three to five additional states within the next two years, and they hope to eventually analyze the entire country.
“This is an area where attention is really just beginning, and it’s not something that has gotten as much attention as people might think,” Mohai said. “We’re hoping a study like ours will pull other researchers into this area to do their own independent research.”
According to Kweon, many states, including Michigan, do not have formal policies that take into account the level of environmental quality when school locations are determined.
“It will take some level of cooperation between state and local government to work together and protect our children from environmental hazard,” Kweon said.
Randy Trent, executive director for physical properties at Ann Arbor Public Schools, said that in constructing Ann Arbor schools, they always conduct phase one environmental assessments and phase two assessments if necessary.
Trent said in a phase one assessment, an environmental consultant checks the history of the piece of property to make sure there wasn’t anything hazardous on the land in the past, like a chemical company, before construction begins. Phase two involves physically going to the site and checking for signs of land misuse such as scarring.
According to Trent, some aspects of the study may be misleading and unclear. He said that areas that were determined by the researchers to be in the first decile — having the least amount of air pollution — are not necessarily better areas to build schools on.
Instead, he said there is much more to consider on a property-to-property basis, like how the owner treats the land. Farmland, for instance, may have been abused by chemicals in the past, making it unsuitable land for a school, Trent said.
Some counties had such high levels of pollution that it would be environmentally unsuitable, according to the study, to build a school anywhere within that region, he said.
“If the whole county is an industrial county, I don’t know what you would do,” he said. “If you’re in Wayne or Monroe, where is that school going to go?”