Air pollution and your child’s ability to learn

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] There is literally something in the air and it is not good for our future

There is literally something in the air and it is not good for our future, particularly our economic future. 

Pregnant mothers worry about what they eat, feel, think or do as it may affect their child’s health. As if that were not enough, they too should know that something in the air could also be affecting their children’s learning ability and consequently their earning potential later in life.  

In an original study led by Frederica Perera, the researchers measured the loss of earnings based on the reduction of IQ points, which is known from a previous study to happen to babies whose mothers have been exposed to certain levels of outdoor air pollutants when they were pregnant. The previous study was based on over 63,000 children born in 2002 in New York city to low-income women.

Low-income families have always been vulnerable to higher public health risks. This is because they often live in areas that do not provide enough open spaces and buffers for environmental health risk. This is particularly true in cities where the air pollution is high. This is made worse because the choices of the poor to lessen or cushion the impact of public health risks are non-existent or extremely limited. In the Philippines, we also find this to be evident. 

The study found that prenatal mothers who have been exposed to aromatic hydrocarbons, a group of gases, which are produced when we burn fossil fuels such as when we drive our vehicles, affect the brains of their unborn child. The resulting loss in IQ points was modest- around 3- by the time the child is 5 years old but this is already equivalent to the IQ loss suffered when exposed to low levels of lead. 

While IQ is not the absolute determinant of success, it does affect, to a large extent, one’s ability to learn and therefore, earning potential. The researchers took a positive take on this known fact and then computed that if air pollution exposure were reduced to even just 0.25 ng/m3  (the mean is 1 ng/m3 ) in New York City, it would result to increased lifetime earnings of these kids they studied, from a conservative estimate of $43 million to a liberal one of $215 million.

While there have been studies on the health costs of air pollution here in the Philippines, I have not come across one that estimated the earning potential of affected children should we reduce air pollution. This is also another solid evidence behind the World Health Organization’s insistence on connected care between mother and child, particularly for low-income families. The benefits of promoting maternal health do not only translate to the realization of child’s learning potential but also economic gains for society in general. We do have a stake in every child exposed to air pollution even while in the womb. Neurotoxins and misguided urban health/environmental policies substantially rob us of our common economic future, which are in the brains of these children.

While we work at efforts toward more comprehensive urban air policies as well as widespread maternal care and child development, science is also at work looking for the answer in vegetables. Yes, vegetables, particularly broccoli.

A clinical trial involving a beverage that is made with broccoli sprouts that 300 subjects were made to take for 3 months seemed to have made a significant impact on cleaning out their bodies with two known air pollutants: benzene and acrolein. Both are hydrocarbons that are produced when we burn fossil fuels but acrolein is more abundantly found in cigarette smoke.  It also only worked on substances you just inhaled and not the nasty ones that hang out in your body for the long haul.

What does broccoli have that scientists suspected could help flush out air pollutants from our bodies? It is a substance called glucoraphanin which somehow when chewed and swallowed coaxes another compound called sulforaphane, which in turn flushes out those toxins through your urine. The preparation of the drink is a very complicated, controlled process, including where the broccoli seeds came from (the process is detailed in the link provided above) so do not be surprised if you do not get the same effects from drinking the broccoli concoction you worked on at home. The scientists think they still need to do further studies on how much sulforaphane, how far and how long the cleansing work can persist as one drinks the broccoli drink.

Broccoli is quite expensive in the Philippines. I am dreaming up vertical urban broccoli farms or other glucoraphanin-rich vegetables in sprawling cities like Metro Manila.  But there is still no substitute for reducing levels of air pollution. I don’t think we can continue at these levels hoping that some super vegetable will just take care of cleansing our bodies. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books,Science Solitaire and Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire. Her column appears every Friday and you can reach her at

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