Can Air Pollution Really Affect Exam Results?

Earlier this month, the University of Chicago released  a study that analysed particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone (O3) pollution in relation to data showing students’ exam scores. The researchers used this set of information to determine how air pollution impacts academic performance. Students from two of the most industrialised states in Brazil – Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro – were the main subjects of the study.

The data that researchers collected revealed that air pollution does indeed affect students’ academic performance. As reflected in the findings, increased exposure to at least 10mg/m3 particulate matter on the day of the exams affects students’ scores by around 8% and lowers their cognitive performance.

Additionally, researchers also discovered that air pollution’s impact on examination performance is more prevalent on male than female students, something that has been proven by previous studies. Another significant factor in determining the susceptibility of students is their financial status. Students who are poorer are more vulnerable to air pollution than the wealthier ones.

As such, although the study provides proof that air pollution or toxic air negatively impacts students’ cognitive performance, it does so unequally.

London air pollution study

Another study, organised by London School of Economics experts, had students who were completing their A-level final exams as the subject. The experts compared the students’ academic performance with the level of air pollution in study halls, and their findings indicated that high levels of toxic air (particularly PM10) significantly lowered the students’ examinations scores by over 3%. The number of students who participated in the study totalled to approximately 2,400.

What the study revealed was that pollution levels in several of the study halls were at around 75 micrograms, way above the 50 micrograms per cubic metre limit set by the World Health Organization. This volume or amount is considered potent and  can lower the scores of those taking the exams.

While particulate matter 10 or PM10 is only 10 micrometres (or less) in diameter, PM2.5 is the finer – and hence more dangerous – type of pollutant.

Israel air pollution study

A study was also conducted in Israel as part of the London School of Economics research. In this scenario, the focus was on 400,000 examinations that Israeli teenagers participated in. The results indicated lower test scores, which was attributed to high levels of PM2.5.

Researchers found that even if the WHO safety limit of 25 micrograms is strictly followed, the negative impact on students’ performance was still detected.

London School of Economics’ Sefi Roth urged students to be more mindful of their outdoor activities on highly polluted days and routes. They should take alternative actions that protect them from toxic air exposure, especially if they prefer to walk to school.

Linking air pollution to cognitive performance indicates the need to focus on its impact on students. Aside from hospitalisation, frequent illnesses, and increased mortality, air pollution also greatly affects mental performance and, in the process, efficiency and productivity.

Why is air pollution dangerous to our health?

Air pollution is an environmental pollution affecting the air. It has several causes, including harmful gases or smoke, nitrogen, sulphur, and oxides of carbon. Polluted air is dangerous because it is contaminated with poisonous substances.

A common source of air pollution is road transport vehicles or cars. The vehicles you drive emit harmful gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Cars are said to emit carbon dioxide of approximately 4.6 metric tonnes every year. Additionally, a vehicle driving one mile typically emits around 404 grams of CO2.

Nitrogen oxides or NOx consists of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitric oxide (NO). This produces acid rain and smog, and that strange brown cloud that you often see covering bigger cities. It also contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, which has detrimental effects on human health. NOx is also responsible for vehicles’ emissions of PM2.5, the most dangerous particulate matter.

Exposure to NOx causes several environmental and health effects. Ground-level ozone damages plants, animals, and ecosystems.

NO, NO2, and PM2.5 can lead to various health issues such as breathing problems, lung damage, asthma and aggravated asthma, other respiratory illnesses, and in severe cases, cancer, cardiovascular problems, and even premature death.

Nitrogen oxides have been in the spotlight since 2015, when the Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal broke. VW was alleged to have installed defeat devices on their diesel vehicles so they could cheat emissions tests. The device automatically lowers NOx emissions when it detects the vehicle is being laboratory tested. When driven in real-world driving conditions, however, the emissions were way above the WHO and EU legal limits.

Aside from Volkswagen, other car manufacturers were also implicated in the diesel emission scandal. One that is still going on today, like VW’s case, is the Mercedes Benz emissions scandal.

What you can do

Do your part in helping improve air quality in the UK. If you have a vehicle affected by the Mercedes diesel scandal, or any of the cars involved in Dieselgate, get in touch with your manufacturer so you can ask for a notice of recall. Recalled vehicles are then upgraded with new and safe engines/systems and the defeat device is removed.

You should also get in touch with emission compensation experts who can help you file an emissions claim. Your manufacturer should compensate you for the inconvenience and danger caused by the defeat device. Find a team of experienced experts such as the ones at

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