A 2019 study conducted by researchers from the University of Utah’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences found a statistically significant correlation between air pollution and school absences.
Over 135 million Americans — more than 40% of the population — are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution on a day-to-day basis in their communities. According to the National Lung Association, exposure to unsafe air and the health threats associated with it disproportionately affects people of color and low-income families.
Schools in low-income communities are often built on the cheapest plots of land available, placing them next to high traffic roads and in other high-risk areas for excessive pollution levels. Since school funding is allocated based on property taxes within the school zone, schools serving low-income families do not have adequate resources to upgrade their HVAC systems to accommodate the high-efficiency air filtration solutions that would protect students.
Utah Study Found Link Between Particulate Matter and School Absences
A 2019 study conducted by researchers from the University of Utah’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences found a statistically significant correlation between air pollution and school absences. Even minor increases in levels of PM2.5 in the air in the Salt Lake City School District in Utah were linked to increases in school absences the following day.
While this correlation does not prove a causal relationship, the finding aligns with other research on the topic conducted before and since the University of Utah’s study.
What is Particulate Matter?
Often abbreviated to PM1, PM2.5, or PM10, these microscopic particles suspended in the air are known to cause damage to human health as well as industrial equipment and processes. Particulate matter can be made out of anything.
PM is classified by the measurement of their diameter in microns. Different classifications of particulate matter affect different parts of the body in different ways and require different filtration solutions. A micron, or a micrometer, is a unit of measurement equalling one-millionth of a meter, or one-thousandth of a millimeter. For reference, there are 25400 microns in an inch.
PM10 are inhalable particles with a diameter of ten microns or less. PM2.5 are inhalable particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less. This type of particulate matter is often referred to as fine particulate matter. PM1 are inhalable particles with a diameter of 1 micron or less.
To get an idea of just how small particulate matter is:
A strand of human hair averages 70 microns in diameter
A sheet of copy paper is usually 100 microns thick
A grain of pollen typically falls in the range of 10 to 40 microns in diameter
Why Is Air Quality in Schools So Bad?
While the geographical location is responsible for a portion of the airborne pollutants that affect children in schools, school buildings themselves are major sources of indoor air pollution. 2014 survey data by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the average age of schools’ main buildings was 55 years old. This means that the average school was built in the late 1950s to early 1960s.
Old buildings are prone to radon gas and asbestos fumes, which are both extreme health threats. Additionally, architecture during this period was designed to keep outdoor air outside — thick insulation, tight seals around windows and doors, and vapor barriers. But this also seals indoor pollutants inside.
Indoor air pollution originates from a range of sources, including:
Cleaning chemicals and air fresheners.
Printers, copying machines, or other equipment that uses large quantities of ink.
Furniture, especially inexpensive furniture, emits formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals.
Students, teachers, staff, and visitors, who bring in allergens and particulate matter from outdoor sources on their clothes, as well as shedding tens of thousands of skin cells every minute, which contributes to dust buildup.
Mold, mildew, and other pathogens and microbes.
Studies by the EPA have also shown that areas where lots of people gather, such as cafeterias and gyms in schools, are five times more polluted than other areas.
The Implications of Air Pollution on Education
The impact of air pollution on education as a whole goes beyond a few missed school days at the individual level. In many states, state aid to schools is allocated based on attendance records. Excessive absences due to air pollution can seriously affect children’s education overall due to cut funding, even if they themselves have not missed school due to pollution-related sickness.
In addition to the physical health threats that polluted air poses to developing lungs as well as adult lungs, polluted air is linked to decreased productivity, decreased cognitive ability, moodiness, and irritability. These factors affect students and teachers. Overall, polluted air greatly affects the education of American children.
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