School districts across the Wasatch Front are busy with bonds to build new schools and renovating and changing the boundaries for existing ones. While many goals have to be juggled to meet the needs of students, parents and the community at large, a serious consideration is being left out of the equation — the air that Utah schoolchildren will breathe.
Currently, Davis County parents say that the school board proposes sending the children of 700 families living on the west side of Kaysville to a new high school that will create daily round trip commutes of over 25 miles. These young students will endure much longer time, in heavy traffic, in private cars or buses, either on congested I-15, or stop-and-go back roads. Parents have complained that special-ed students may be subjected to bus rides up to 90 minutes each way. And they will all be inhaling a lot more air pollution.
Over 20 years, the proposed commute of those students will add the pollution and greenhouse gases of 60 million vehicle miles to our community airshed. But to the students involved, that is just the beginning.
The toxicity of pollution particles is inversely proportional to their size. The smallest particles, 0.1 microns in diameter and smaller, called “ultrafines,” are the worst of the worst. Concentrations of ultra fines can be 30 times higher along freeways than a mere 100 yards away. That’s undoubtedly why they have been dubbed “cancer corridors.” It’s why sitting in traffic can increase your chance of a heart attack around 300 percent, literally within an hour after the exposure. Roadways with stoplights have 29 times higher concentrations of particulate matter at intersections than on open roads.
It gets worse. In traffic, pollution can be five to six times higher inside a school bus than outside. Other studies indicate that some pollutants can be 10 times higher inside a private car than outside. Although running the air conditioner may decrease particulate pollution, it may increase the even more toxic VOCs (benzene, toluene, formaldehydes, etc).
As bad as this sounds for adults stuck on I-15, it is much worse for children. We’ve long known that children are much more susceptible to air pollution’s hazards than adults for many reasons. We’ve recently learned that in addition to breathing at a faster rate, compared to an adult, children’s lungs will deposit more pollution per breath in the deepest parts of the lung. This may help explain why air pollution inhaled prior to adulthood can irreversibly stunt lung capacity.
The headline in a recent Science magazine read, “The Polluted Brain.” Drawing from hundreds of studies, the article said, “pollution attacks the human brain,” causing, “shrunken and atrophied neurites.” Numerous epidemiologic, clinical and biologic studies show that pollution is particularly harmful to children, i.e. to the developing brain. Air pollution rapidly ignites systemic inflammation, which reaches the brain, triggering a harmful auto-immune reaction with antibodies. EEG studies show short-term exposure alters brain electrical activity, indicating “cortical stress.” MRI scans show pollution causes children to actually lose brain volume, leaves “scarring” in brain tissue, and changes brain architecture. Autopsies show that pollution particles themselves actually penetrate the brain, to the tune of “millions of particles per gram of brain tissue." The clinical result is loss of intellect, impaired memory and executive functioning and ADHD behavior. Dozens of studies link air pollution to autism, including two new ones published just last week. Utah has the second highest rate of autism in the country, afflicting one in every 32 Utah boys.
Lead in our drinking water has provoked much-deserved national hand-wringing since the scandal in Flint, Michigan. But air pollution also causes permanent brain damage, and may be much worse because no one escapes its insidious reach.
Several recent studies are very specific. Air pollution that children breathe on the way to school, on a bus, in a car or at school correlates with decreased memory and cognitive ability. Their attention span even fluctuates on a daily basis with the amount of air pollution they’ve inhaled.
While school districts, boards, lawmakers and parents focus on new buildings, new boundaries, more money and more teachers, all will be undermined if Utah children arrive at school after inhaling a gauntlet of more air pollution.
Dr. Brian Moench is the president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.