Exposed: how toxic air reduces intelligence

Poison: Children in China’s Shandong province wear masks to keep safe from the smog. © Getty

How can we solve the air pollution crisis? A study has linked pollution to “huge” reductions in test scores. Worldwide, dirty air also leads to millions of early deaths every year.

What’s happening

Right now, 90% of the world’s population is breathing air with unhealthy levels of pollution. This exposure is linked to many different health problems and contributes to seven million early deaths every year. Now, scientists even think dirty air can make people less intelligent.

Find out more

A study in China found that breathing in lots of pollution can cause a “steep reduction” in maths and language skills. In extreme cases, this was the same as the loss of a year’s worth of education.

But where does the pollution come from?

The main sources are man-made. For example, power stations that burn fossil fuels release tiny particles into the air which can enter the body and damage the lungs and brain. Vehicle exhaust and farmyard chemicals also contribute.

Extreme air pollution is often associated with countries like India and China where entire cities can be engulfed in thick smog. But the UK is affected too: in London, around 40,000 premature deaths are linked to air pollution each year.

How can we solve the problem?

Some say…

Science is the way to do it, some argue. One idea is to cover skyscrapers with masses of plants and greenery which can suck up the toxic particles. Other scientists are designing jet engines which could launch the pollution high into the atmosphere like a giant chimney. Only big thinking and investment in engineering can bring the change we need.

Others think…

Not so fast, others respond. Relying on scientists to find a way out of this mess does not address the root cause of the problem: our addiction to burning fossil fuels and driving cars. We should convince politicians to invest in green energy like wind and solar, and we can all try to live in more sustainable ways from day to day.

You Decide

  1. Will there be more or less air pollution in the world in 50 years?

Activities

  1. In pairs or small groups, write a list of all the things that you think produce air pollution. Which of these do you think is the most polluting? Would it be possible to live without all of these things. Why/why not?

Some People Say...

“The environment will continue to deteriorate until pollution practices are abandoned.”

B.F Skinner

What do you think?

Word Watch

Exposure
Having no protection from something harmful.
Fossil fuels
Fuels such as coal, gas and oil.
Particles
A very small amount of a substance.
Engulfed
To be completely surrounded by something.
Premature
When something happens too early.
Investment
Paying money into a process or product in the hope that it will improve.

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