Air pollution affects students’ school performance unequally

In this article, Fabrizio Bernardi and Risto Conte Keivabu investigate the effect of exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) at schools on students’ test scores in Italy.

Unsplash / Ainur Khakimov

There is growing public concern about the air quality that children breathe at schools. Previous studies have consistently shown that exposure to high levels of air pollution negatively impacts children’s health and school performance.

In this article published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, Fabrizio Bernardi (UNED, Madrid) and Risto Conte Keivabu (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research) investigate the effect of exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) at schools on students’ test scores in Italy. They were interested in identifying inequalities based on the family socioeconomic status (SES) of these children. Italy constitutes an interesting case study as the country is characterised by high levels of air pollution and significant geographical diversity. Indeed, 80% of schools in Italy are in areas with PM2.5 levels above 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3), which is 5 micrograms over the current threshold set by the WHO of 5 µg/m3.

Bernardi and Conte addressed two questions. First, are low SES students more likely to attend schools in areas with poorer air quality? Second, is the negative effect of exposure to poor air quality the same for high and low SES children, or are high SES students more protected from the negative effects of poor air quality at school? To answer to these questions, they have used administrative data on test scores in maths and reading provided by the Italian National Institute for the Evaluation of Education (INVALSI). The data covers 456,508 8th-grade students, and was collected nationally in 2019. They geocoded the locations of 6,882 schools based on their addresses and linked the level of air pollution in the surrounding areas using PM2.5 data from the Atmospheric Composition Analysis Group.

Three results stand out. First, looking at schools within the same municipality, they found no association between family SES and air quality at schools; high and low SES students attend schools with similar levels of PM2.5. The authors explain this finding by pointing to the relatively lower level of residential segregation by SES in Southern Europe, compared for example to the USA, and to the fact that in Italy, high SES families tend to live in the city centres of large cities, which are often the most polluted areas due to traffic congestion. Second, in line with previous studies, they have identified a small yet consistent negative effect of PM2.5 on math and reading test scores. Third, the negative impact of exposure to PM2.5 at school was primarily observed among students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

This research contributes to the literature on environmental and social background inequalities. It is also highly relevant to policy makers and the general public, helping to raise awareness of the urgent need to implement policies such as congestion charges and infrastructure improvements at schools to reduce exposure to PM2.5. Such policies could also help reduce the SES gap in school performance.

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This article is based on this post by Fabrizio Bernardi and Risto Conte Keivabu, first published on Population Europe.