The Influence of Air Quality on Health and Learning

I recently posted two very long posts, on the influence of acoustics and greenery on learning, respectively, which once were slated to be part of a book that I just couldn’t scrounge the time together to complete. One of the chapters-to-be was on the importance of air quality in learning — and damn, how timely it would have been if I could have pulled that all together pre-COVID-19?!

Oh well. Instead, in the attempt to exorcise the never-to-be-completed book, as well as to close the chapter on this blog and move into more thinking and writing on language and literacy, I posted those two chapters and have been in the process of moving on.

While I most likely won’t ever write that book, I’d still like to highlight the critical importance of air quality in schools and learning, which has become all the more apparent during a time of a respiratory virus, but which is important at all times. And since I don’t have the time to write it all up in full, I’ll post links to the threads that I had laying about in a document instead, and let you, dear reader, complete the thoughts:

The Health Impacts of Air Pollution

Roth and his team looked at students taking exams on different days – and also measured how much pollution was in the air on those given days. All other variables remained the same: The exams were taken by students of similar levels of education, in the same place, but over multiple days.

He found that the variation in average results were staggeringly different. The most polluted days correlated with the worst test scores. On days where the air quality was cleanest, students performed better.

To determine the long-term effects, Roth followed up to see what impact this had eight to 10 years later. Those who performed worst on the most polluted days were more likely to end up in a lower-ranked university and were also earning less, because the exam in question was so important for future education.

“How air pollution is doing more than killing us” by Melissa Hogenboom in BBC Future

The Impact of Indoor Air Quality on Learning

When the level of fresh air in the classrooms was increased, the students performed up to seven per cent better than when they were working on the tests in their usual indoor climates. The study also revealed that the students did not themselves notice that they were not quite as astute in the poorer climate.

“Bad air quality makes children perform worse in schools” by Jonas Salomonsen in ScienceNordic

Southern California’s air agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, earmarked settlements from polluting companies and other funds to cover the cost of such filtration at about 80 schools near freeways or other pollution sources. Nothing’s preventing other states from following the same model.

“The technology is well established, the installation is straightforward and the maintenance is simple,” said district spokesman Sam Atwood, who doesn’t recall officials from other states getting in touch to learn from his agency’s experience.

“The Invisible Hazard Afflicting Thousands of Schools” by Jamie Smith Hopkins for The Center for Public Integrity

The Relationship of Air Pollution to COVID-19

The Cognitive Impact of Fresh Air

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A consistent argument I’ve made here is that the physical environment of a school alone can have a significant impact.

So here’s a really interesting study that demonstrated that healthier air quality (in the form of low CO2 levels) can double cognitive scores.

“The results are striking,” lead researcher Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard, told Ars. Researchers knew that air quality would likely affect cognitive function and work performance, but earlier studies included few people and reported subjective data. We didn’t expect to see that high quality air could double cognitive scores, Allen said.

Can you imagine if any school ever posted results where they doubled cognitive scores—or doubled any score, for that matter? To say that the “results are striking” would be an understatement.

In this study, the researchers looked specifically at office workers. But most workers in offices at least work in buildings where there is no mold growing on the ceiling, where there is no water that will run down the chalkboard whenever it rains, and where there is no thick black-green “dust” that will coat your desks on a daily basis.

Whereas we find it somehow OK to send off thousands of our nations children each day to schools where this is the everyday norm.

So if ventilating the air can DOUBLE the cognitive scores of office workers — imagine, just imagine, what it could do for the long-term well-being and academic performance of students. . .

Access to fresh air, greenery, and natural light should be a right, not a luxury, for all of our children.