Reducing NYC Air Pollution Would Boost Children's IQ And Chance For Financial Success

By Gabrielle Jonas on May 8, 2014 2:00 PM EDT

If cigarette smoking can lower the IQ of a developing fetus, so can air pollution, a researcher at Columbia University says.
If cigarette smoking can lower the IQ of a developing fetus, so can air pollution, a researcher at Columbia University says.

Improving air quality in New York City could boost children's future earnings, claims Frederica Perera, lead author of a study published Thursday in the Journal of Public Health Policy. Dr. Perera, of the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, wrote that outdoor air pollution, largely from the burning of fossil fuels, has already been shown to cause health problems. She pointed out  that a developing fetus and young child are especially vulnerable to toxins that affect the brain, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), created by burning fossil fuels ubiquitous in urban air.

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On the basis of a former study (her own) of a low-income population in New York City that found an association between child IQ and prenatal exposure to airborne PAH (from cigarettes), Perera wondered how a decrease in air pollution could pay off in increased IQ levels and therefore higher lifetime earnings for the low-income urban population. (A relationship between high IQ and income power had been suggested by earlier studies.) In Perera's earlier study, five-year-old children born to smoking mothers and therefore exposed to higher levels of PAH during pregnancy had IQs three points lower than five-year-olds whose mothers didn't smoke during pregnancy.

For this study, Perera wondered how a reduction of PAH concentrations in New York City of about 25 percent less than current estimated annual levels would affect IQ. Perera maintains that "Low-income populations are disproportionately exposed to air pollution," although she did not look at how the same New York City air pollution would have affected children of higher income families.

Perera's analysis focused on the 63,462 New York City children born in 2002 to women on Medicaid, a group sharing the same socio-demographic characteristics as the group she studied earlier that linked IQ to cigarette PAH. She hypothesized an associated increase in IQ in that population, had the air pollution been less. She postulated a bump up in IQ had those children not been exposed to air pollution (the same to which the rest of New York City's children would also not have been exposed).

Earlier studies have estimated earnings potential as they could relate to exposures to lead and mercury. Using the estimates and methodologies of those studies, Perera then sought to compute how the Medicaid children's IQs would have been higher had they not been exposed to 25 percent more PAH.

Linking those postulated higher IQs with associated greater earnings, Perera computed that each of those 63,462 children would be earning $215 million more in their lifetimes - about $43 million when she used more conservative assumptions. "This analysis suggests that a modest reduction in ambient concentrations of PAH is associated with substantial economic benefits to children," she wrote.

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