Originally published August 28, 2015
By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
Stephanie E. Clark-Reyna, a former graduate student at The University of Texas at El Paso, knew that chronic exposure to air pollution could lead to respiratory illnesses and other serious health effects.
But it wasn’t until Clark-Reyna began doing environmental justice research on her thesis project that she realized the contaminated air children breathe at home could also affect their performance in school.
“I had never considered that exposure to pollution could also impact school performance,” said Clark-Reyna, who received her master’s in sociology from UTEP in May 2015. “Previous literature has shown us that poor school performance in childhood is linked to low socioeconomic status as an adult, fewer years of schooling completed, and so on. The situation puts those who are living in a polluted neighborhood at an even greater disadvantage later in life.”
As part of her project, Clark-Reyna collaborated on a study with Sara E. Grineski, Ph.D., and Timothy W. Collins, Ph.D., associate professors of sociology and anthropology at UTEP, to examine the examine the effects of air pollution on children’s health and academic performance.
The researchers found that fourth and fifth graders who were exposed to high levels of motor vehicle emissions from cars, trucks and buses on roads and highways were found to have significantly lower GPAs, even when accounting for other factors known to influence school performance.
The results of their study were published in the academic journal Population and Environment. (For a link to the study, click here.)
“Some evidence suggests that this association might exist because of illnesses, such as respiratory infections or asthma,” Grineski said. “Air pollution makes children sick, which leads to absenteeism and poor performance in school. The other hypothesis is that chronic exposure to air toxics can negatively affect children’s neurological and brain development.”
For the study, the researchers analyzed academic performance and sociodemographic data for 1,895 fourth and fifth grade children living in El Paso, Texas, that were attending the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD).
They used the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment to estimate children’s exposure to toxic air pollutants, such as diesel exhaust, around the location of their homes.
“This study is important for multiple reasons,” said Clark-Reyna, the study’s lead author. “Most importantly, there are recommendations suggested by the EPA regarding where you should build a new school in proximity to major roads and freeways, factories and refineries, and vice versa, but these recommendations are not mandatory. Studies such as this that link exposure to air pollutants to a decrease in academic achievement outcomes provide a much needed push to make these recommendations mandatory rather than voluntary.”
This is the ninth study to emerge from a 2012 children’s respiratory health survey conducted by UTEP’s Hispanic Health Disparities Research Center.
The survey was mailed to the homes of fourth and fifth graders enrolled in all 58 EPISD elementary schools. Researchers selected schools in EPISD because it is the largest district in Texas’ Region 19.
Parents and guardians answered questions about their children’s grades in reading, language arts, math, social studies and science. The survey also asked about the family’s income, household size, parent’s education level, and if the child qualified for free or reduced-price meals.
“This isn’t a phenomenon unique to EPISD,” Grineski said. “What makes our study different is that we are actually studying kids in their home setting, but there’s a body of literature where they have studied levels of air pollution at schools in California and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, instead of at children’s homes. A study on the Los Angeles Unified School District showed that schools with higher levels of pollution have lower standardized test scores.”
Collins said air quality is an important issue in El Paso. The American Lung Association ranked El Paso eighth out of 277 metropolitan areas in the United States for annual particulate pollution in 2014.
Collins has reported that on-road mobile sources like the trucking industry are the largest contributors of overall air pollution in the city.
In 2014, nearly 400,000 trucks crossed from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso through the Ysleta-Zaragoza Port of Entry, and another 360,000 trucks crossed in the U.S. through El Paso’s Bridge of the Americas Port of Entry.
“I am not sure that I would expect to find similar results in a place with considerably lower levels of air pollution,” Collins said, referring to the survey’s outcomes. “El Paso is a great laboratory to examine questions of Hispanic health.”
Clark-Reyna credits her experience as a research assistant on the survey as the stepping stone to a doctoral education. In September, she will start her first semester as a sociology Ph.D. student at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts.
“I feel very fortunate to have had to opportunity to work under a team that was very hands on and encouraging when it came to learning statistical skills, working with and analyzing data, and especially writing journal articles,” Clark-Reyna said. “After I graduate, I would like to continue to study and research environmental sociology and health disparities.”
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