Some of the biggest barriers blocking children’s access to opportunity are also the most invisible. It’s no small difference either. If New York City were to reduce its pollution from sources like diesel fumes by even a quarter, affected children could earn an additional $215 million in their lifetimes.
It’s old news that some types of air pollution affect some groups more than others. Poor communities of color are most at risk, often housed in the polluted miasma next to highways, city dumps, landfills, power plants, and other undesirable places to live. New York City is no exception. In 2006, NYU researchers analyzed backpacks of South Bronx schoolchildren to link the borough’s heavy diesel-powered truck traffic to shockingly high rates of childhood asthma hospitalizations.
But a new study from researchers at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, is the first to show how pollution might affect those kids’ earning potential later in life.
The researchers tracked both poor, pregnant African American and Dominican mothers and their children until the age of five. By measuring their exposure to PAHs, an air pollutant emitted from diesel trucks and other industrial sources, the Columbia researchers were able to see if pollution exposure correlated with academic performance and IQ.
Their results are worrisome. Prenatal exposure to pollution correlated with developmental delays at age 3, fewer IQ points at age 5, and behavior problems at 7-years-old, they found. When they factored in the well-documented relationship between IQ and future earnings, the researchers calculated that if the city decreased PAH pollution by a quarter, each child could earn an additional $3,382 on average. Multiply that by the 63,500 kids exposed to this kind of pollution in the city, and the total comes to $215 million in lost dollars.
Other studies on pollutant exposure have yielded similar findings. In 2005, researchers from New York’s Mount Sinai hospital estimated that prenatal exposure to mercury amounted to an $8.7 billion loss in earning potential across the country. Lead has an even greater impact. Last year, New York University scientists estimated a $50.9 billion loss in the United States as the result of childhood exposure to lead.