New Study Suggests That Air Pollution Could Be Making You Dumber

air pollution intelligence study

Unsplash/Karl Jk Hedin

We already know that air pollution in our beloved urban centers is wreaking havoc on our heart and lung health, but now we have to add our brains to the list. That’s right — new research is suggesting that exposure to this toxic air is leading to a “huge” reduction in human intelligence.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on August 28, examined data from the national China Family Panel Studies longitudinal survey. The researchers analyzed cognitive test scores of approximately 32,000 people over the age of 10 from that survey between 2010 and 2014 and compared those scores to their short- and long-term air pollution exposure.

In doing so, the team identified a pretty clear trend: both verbal and math test scores decreased as cumulative air pollution exposure increased. And the older the participants, the more pronounced the verbal score drops, especially among older, less educated men. The average impact of the pollution exposure was the equivalent of losing one full year of education. A full year.

“Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge,” research team member Xi Chen from the Yale School of Public Health told The Guardian. “But we know the effect is worse for the elderly, especially those over 64, and for men, and for those with low education. If we calculate [the loss] for those, it may be a few years of education.”

air pollution intelligence study

Unsplash/Jose A Sanchez Dafos

This study was conducted in China specifically, but the results can be extrapolated across the worldwide population because 80 percent of humans today are breathing unsafe air. And while it isn’t the first set of research to note that air pollution can harm a person’s cognitive performance, it is the first to break away from studying students alone and incorporate both men and women of all ages in its sample.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the poorer populations who are hit the hardest. The 20 most polluted cities, as determined by the World Health Organization (WHO), are all located in developing countries. And 98 percent of the world’s cities that are home to more than 100,000 people in low- and middle-income countries generally fail to meet the air quality guidelines as determined by WHO.

As if the findings aren’t scary enough, what’s worse is that there really isn’t a short-term fix to this problem. It’s up to policymakers across the globe to make regulations that care for the health of their people, as well as their economic bottom line.


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