Improving air quality in New York City would result in substantial economic gains and brighter futures for children by increasing their IQs, a pioneering new study has suggested.
In what is thought to be the first scientific analysis to estimate the monetary costs of IQ loss caused by exposure to high levels of air pollution, researchers looked at previous studies that showed how pollutants affect unborn foetuses and young children.
They used this information to calculate how a reduction of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) – atmospheric pollutants produced by the burning of fossil fuels – would boost the IQs of New York children.
The evidence suggested that children born to mothers exposed to higher levels of airborne PAH during pregnancy had IQs three points lower at age five than children whose mothers had lower PAH exposures.
Using previous research on the impact of exposure to lead and mercury on IQ and future earnings, the study concludes that a 25% improvement in air quality would translate into increased lifetime earnings of $215m (£127m).
Though the study analysed only New York City, the researchers say the results likely apply to children more broadly.
“Our analysis suggests that a modest reduction in urban air pollution would provide substantial economic benefits and help children realise their full potential”, said Frederica Perera, lead author of the study.
Perera added that the real costs of rising pollution will be far greater than these lost earnings, due to the wide-ranging health impacts of atmospheric pollutants.
It revealed that only 12% of people living in the 1,600 cities assessed breath air that complies with WHO air quality guidelines. Around half of the urban population that was analysed are exposed to air pollution that is at least 2.5 times higher than the levels WHO recommends.
In April, Public Health England (PHE) said that air pollution was “the biggest public health risk after smoking”, claiming it contributed to around 29,000 deaths in the UK each year.
Photo: Rakkhi Samarasekera via Flickr