The Effects of Air Pollution on Working Memory in School-Aged Children

By Meenu Johnkutty ’21

Figure 1. Researchers discovered lower working memory levels in primary school children who were exposed to traffic-related pollutants.

Figure 1. Researchers discovered lower working memory levels in primary school children who were exposed to traffic-related pollutants.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average person takes about 23,040 breaths each day. Multiply this figure by 365, and an individual takes a gargantuan 8,409,600 breaths per year. That’s a tremendous amount of air!

Because the human population is virtually tied to its air supply, it is no surprise that polluted air is detrimental to the human body. A recent study led by researcher Dr. Mar Alvarez-Pedrerol of the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Spain has shed light on the adverse effects of air pollution on the working memory of school-aged children. This study focused on the consequences of traffic-related air pollutants (TRAP) in the walking routes between home and school on primary school children in Spain.

First, researchers estimated the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, black carbon, and particulate matter at the participants’ homes. Next, they measured these concentrations along the shortest self-reported walking route from home to school. They subsequently calculated exposure by multiplying the concentration of pollutant by the children’s commute time. Moreover, researchers administered computerized tests to participants every three months for two years to measure cognitive functions and working memory levels.

While the researchers found no significant associations between nitrogen dioxide levels and cognitive or working memory functioning, they discovered a darker narrative in the relationship between particulate matter and black carbon levels and working memory levels. The collected data associated increases in particulate matter and black carbon with reductions in working memory, the memory that temporarily holds information –a quickly memorized phone number, for example. As adolescence marks a critical period of brain development, the impact of pollution on working memory levels in young children calls for increased attention.

The team of researchers recommends decreasing the use of personal cars to lower the amount of traffic related pollutants released into the air. Whether in Spain or in the United States, the study encourages all to carpool and thereby reduce pollutant emissions –not only for the sake of the planet but also for tomorrow’s future.



  1. M. Alvarez-Pedrerol, et. al., Impact of commuting exposure to traffic-related air pollution on cognitive development in children walking to school. ScienceDirect 231, 837-844 (2017). doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2017.08.075.
  2. Image retrieved from:

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