Sunday, August 1

Pollution and child development

In recent years, studies on the detrimental effects of environmental pollution on the development of children have accumulated and the evidence is very conclusive. Exposure to high levels of microparticles and gases such as nitrogen dioxide has negative impacts on brain development (here, here, here, here, here), attention and memory (here, here, here), respiratory health (here, here) and mental (here) and the behavior (here) of minors. It even increases the probability of wearing glasses (here) and develop 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 income and the educational level of families, but some located near basic traffic routes and others in places with less pollution and followed the development trajectories of boys and girls for several years. The effects of going from low to high levels of pollution are alarming. In many cases they are equivalent to having been born into a family with a high or low socio-economic level, one of the main predictors of child development.

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

Reducing traffic near schools is controversial because it involves reducing traffic in general. For measures to be taken in this regard, there must be not only scientific evidence of its benefits but also strong social demand. One of the groups that can pressure administrations to change school environments are the parents themselves. In fact, in the last year many family associations articulated around the movement of the School Revolt they have cut off-campus traffic to claim safer, quieter and cleaner school environments, but it is difficult to know if there is any real concern among families about this issue. There are not a few children who arrive by car to school and therefore perhaps there is a silent majority of families who oppose pacification because it would make it difficult to access schools by private transport.

To what extent are families concerned about pollution in school environments? What measurements are more or less popular? To provide data on this issue, we have conducted a survey among the schools participating in the School Revolt protests, which was answered by 4,450 families from 70 schools in Barcelona and other surrounding cities. The main limitation of these data is that they come 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 that it is about schools in which this debate has taken place as a result of traffic cuts. It is a type of action that sometimes provokes a contrary reaction and therefore they are environments in which opinions on this subject are crystallized.

We found in the first place that 86% of the people surveyed think that the environmental pollution around their school is excessive and 79% also consider the noise that comes from road traffic excessive. 80% think that cars and motorcycles go very fast around the school.

Driving to school does not seem to be a pressing need in these urban settings: 74% live within a 15-minute walk of school and only 11% of fathers and 7% of mothers bring their children or girls in private transport at least once a week. By far the most common form of transportation is walking. Despite this, most do not consider that children go to school alone. 80% consider that the way to school is not safe enough for an 8-year-old boy or girl to do it alone or in a group of unaccompanied minors. This is significant, because from an evolutionary point of view minors have sufficient autonomy to make known and short journeys at that age.

The survey also asked about support for different specific measures. There is a lot of support (over 90%) for controlling pollution and noise levels and reducing traffic on streets adjacent to the school. The specific measure that provokes the least support, predictably, is to eliminate parking spaces at the entrances to schools, but still 77% support it. Despite the possible biases, the data suggest that there is significant concern among families about contamination and that support for measures involving the administrations is overwhelming. In any case, the study is not closed, and interested schools can participate by writing to [email protected].

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