Air Pollution and Its Impacts on Studying

Air Pollution Impacts on Studying

We always want to blame bad test results on external sources. However, we often think that these are just excuses for our own faults. When it comes to air pollution and studying though, it may not be just an excuse. 

Air pollution has been linked to hundreds of different health conditions since it became a known issue.

So far, to name but a few correlated health issues, higher air pollution levels have been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, depression¹ (sometimes leading to suicide²), and cognitive disorders. 

More recently, air pollution and its effects on cognitive functions have been focused on more than ever before. It now seems very likely that higher levels of air pollution make us not only less effective at study but also perform worse in exams. 

The unfortunate reality is that we often don’t even consider air pollution. It’s one of the leading causes of health conditions and mortality today³, yet we still overlook it. 

In this article, I want to discuss air pollution and its implications for students. As a university student who has become increasingly aware of the levels of pollution experienced in everyday life, I wonder; how exactly does air pollution impact students in regards to studying and exams.

Research and data in this field is still lacking. While more and more data is pointing towards air pollution leading to lower exam results (and some much more far-reaching effects), it’s harder to specify exactly which factors influence studying and how.

It’s almost certain that air pollution decreases the effectiveness of our studying. However, exactly how is less clear.

Learn more: Air Pollution in Seoul.


I am not an expert in the field of air pollution. I have linked all sources, please refer to them for more information. This article is intended simply to make the dangers of air pollution more well-known and to convey the research in a more digestible way. If you notice any inaccuracies or have any further questions please contact me.

This article contains affiliate links. For more information, please refer to my affiliate disclaimer.


How Does Air Pollution Impact Studying? 

Studying and Air Pollution

Air pollution has a wide range of impacts on studying. However, before these can be discussed, it’s important to understand a few things about air pollution. 

  • Air pollution isn’t only one pollutant. Rather, air pollution comes from hundreds, even thousands, of different pollutants. Each of these has a different impact on health and in turn, studying. 
  • There is no way I can discuss all of the effects on studying in this article. While I will discuss some causes and effects, in reality, the effects are far more wide-ranging. 
  • Air pollution does not only come from outdoor sources. In fact, air pollution is often more dangerous, with greater effects, inside. Since most studying takes place inside, this is especially important. 

Air pollution can impact studying in a wide range of different ways. From minor effects such as increased fatigue, all the way to more serious effects such as decreased cognitive functions.⁴ 

There are many different pollutants that impact air pollution. Some of the more common indoor pollutants are PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon dioxide (in excess). 

Since the majority of studying takes place indoors, it is important to consider indoor air pollution. This pollution tends to differ from that which is found outdoors is both composition and concentration. In fact, air pollutant concentration is often 2 to 5 times higher indoors.⁵

All of these pollutants have different individual health impacts, and all of them come from different sources. I go into more detail in my indoor air pollution & VOCs article. 

Learn more about respirator filtration mechanisms.


Research on Air Pollution & Academic Results

Air Pollution in Shanghai

Overall, though, there is a lot of research that points towards air pollution significantly lowering test scores. One paper found that air pollution impedes verbal test scores and that this impediment is exasperated with long-term exposure. Further, this change seems to influence men more than women.

Another study in Michigan found that schools located in areas with higher levels of air pollution had higher proportions of students failing to meet education standards. This data remained significant even when other variables were accounted for.

For more specific data, an interesting study was conducted in Israel. This study found a statistical decrease in the number of people passing the Israeli highschool exam on days of higher pollution.

‘We find that a one standard deviation increase in the fraction of exam days that are heavily polluted is associated with a 2.19 and 2.70 percentage point decline in the probability of receiving a Bagrut matriculation certificate for PM2.5 and CO respectively’ (in regards to CO and PM2.5).⁶

This study also goes on to suggest that it may be possible that the PM2.5 results are skewed by asthmatics and other sensitive groups who react more severely to higher PM2.5 concentrations.

One of the studies was conducted by looking into the longer-term impact of PM2.5 particles on the educational outcome, and income. The research showed a significant effect of PM2.5 pollution on income. That is to say, performing high-stakes exams in areas of high PM2.5 concentrations can have lifelong economic implications.⁷

This is a very important finding as it shows that exposure to air pollution during school years (especially high school) can impact our whole life.

Perhaps more relevant for some people, it has also been found that allergens (such as pollen) can decrease the rates of those passing of exams.

It is important to note though, that many of these studies note that they can’t necessarily point to cognitive impacts as the reason for lower scores. Rather, exasperated symptoms (for allergies or asthma for example) may lead to distractions during tests⁸, resulting in lower scores.


Impacts on Studying

Shanghai Air Pollution

Tens, if not hundreds of research papers are now pointing towards air pollution being tied to lower exam scores. However, how does this impact students who are simply studying rather than partaking in high-stakes exams?

For that, there is less research. Exams have a measurable outcome in the form of scores. However, it’s far harder to pinpoint the impact of air pollution on study, because measuring the outcome of study isn’t so clearly defined. 

But, with there being so much evidence of air pollution impacting cognitive functions and exam scores, it’s easy to extrapolate this data and predict that it also impacts study and the effectiveness of studying. 

We can also look at the individual impacts of pollutants that provide more obvious difficulties to studying. Certain aspects of air pollution have been linked to drowsiness, exhaustion, headaches, increased heart rate (excitement) and other conditions which can make studying sub-optimal. 

Further, with air pollution being linked to depression (often, in turn, leading to a lack of motivation), there are many different ways in which higher levels of air pollution can lead to difficulties and lack of efficiency in study.

Outside of direct effects, air pollution can also cause other difficulties leading to sub-optimal studying. One such example is that high concentrations of PM10 may even impact sleeping, reducing the quality of sleep and/or decreasing sleep time.⁹

While this is a lot of information to take in (and there is a lot more available), it can be summarised into a few key points.

  • Certain air pollutants have been linked to decreased exam results in high-stakes exams. 
  • Those air pollutants have also been linked to a lower income, showing that air pollution can have life-long effects. 
  • Air pollution can disrupt sleep, increase drowsiness and cause depression among other conditions. All of these can impact study.

While it isn’t always possible to avoid air pollution, there are some ways that you can minimize it and create the ideal place for studying.


Creating the Ideal Study Environment

Air Pollution Studying

Knowing all of the impacts of air pollution on study is a good start, but how can we act on this information? Luckily, as long as you study somewhere that you can manipulate (such as in your own house or room), there are some actions that you can take.

It’s important to note that while many of the effects of air pollution on studying are longer-term, air pollution can also impact study in the short term.


How Can You Monitor These Dangers?

uHoo Design

An air pollution monitor such as the uHoo is a way to monitor indoor pollutants.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a free way to monitor air pollution levels indoors. For most people, and air pollution monitor isn’t even a consideration.

The good news is that you don’t need to monitor air pollution to minimise its levels. If you aren’t interested in purchasing an air pollution monitor, simply follow the steps in the next section to decrease your pollutant levels.

However, if you are interested in an air pollution monitor there are many choices out there. There are options starting as low as $50 that will allow you to monitor and manage the air quality in your house and study area.

If you are looking for the most detailed device, I would recommend the uHoo Air Quality Monitor. It offers very in-depth data and will allow you to take control of your air quality.

If you are looking for something that is easily viewed (with a screen) and with great mobile integration, then check out the Laser Egg. You can read my review of the Kaiterra Laser Egg here.

Finally, if you are looking for a more portable device that also works outside, I recommend the Flow 2 by Plume Labs.

Air pollution monitors are great for visualizing the quality of the air and finding out the truth about the air quality indoors. However, they are by no means essential.


How Can You Minimise These Dangers?

Plant Impact on Air Pollution and Studying

Assuming that you are studying indoors, in an area that you can modify (such as your home or office space), there are some steps that you can take to minimise the impacts of air pollution.

Air pollutants such as VOCs, carbon dioxide (in excess), and nitrogen dioxide can generally be lowered by providing good ventilation. Creating a good airflow through your house or studying space is essential for lowering the concentration of pollutants. 

However, this can raise the issue of outdoor air quality. If you live in a region where outdoor air quality is significantly worse than the indoor air quality, it may be worth investing in some products that can remove harmful pollutants from the air. 

Air purifiers with a HEPA filter can be purchased for as little as $100, and some of these are capable of significantly increasing the air quality indoors. 

Dehumidifiers can also help create a better indoor environment for study. While these won’t remove pollutants from the air, they are capable of keeping the humidity constant and comfortable, making for a better studying environment.

On the natural side, there are also some houseplants that are fantastic for cleaning the air of VOCs and other chemicals. This list has some of the best options for plants that will help clean the air and make it healthier to study in.

On top of this, it has also been found that plants can increase one’s ability to pay attention.¹⁰ This just adds a further reason to add plants to your studying area!

If you are looking to create the ideal study environment that is air pollution free, you can follow the steps in the list below.

  • Use good ventilation. Make sure that air can circulate. However, if the outdoor air quality is worse than indoors, it may be better to keep the windows closed.
  • Add plants to your study area. Not only are some plants capable of removing VOCs from the air, but they also have been proven to increase attention span.
  • If plants aren’t sufficient, or you can’t provide adequate airflow, considering purchasing a HEPA air purifier to help clean your air.
  • Be careful about using chemical-based products inside. If you must use products with harmful chemicals, make sure to provide good ventilation.

Conclusion

Air Pollution Impact on Studying

The impacts of air pollution are still being researched, and we see more and more studies being released every week. However, links with air pollution and conditions that can hinder study have been found in many different studies.

Further, air pollution has been found to decrease the passing rates of exams, and to even have longer lasting impacts in the form of future income.

For these reasons it is important to always consider air pollution. It is something that needs our attention and something that needs more awareness.

On a smaller scale, it’s important to make sure that we are making the most of study and that we have the best conditions possible. I hope that this post has helped to provide some awareness surrounding studying and air pollution and that more people can act on this knowledge.


FAQ

Does Air Pollution Impact Study?

In excess air pollutant can impact study. It has been proven to decrease cognitive function, and also to decrease attention span.

Can Air Pollution Impact Exam Results?

Yes. Studies have been done that have shown that on days of high air pollution average exam results are lower.

How Can I Minimise Air Pollution When I Study?

Make sure to have adequate ventilation in the area that you study, and if possible, have some plants in the area. An air purifier and air pollution monitor can also help, however, these aren’t essential.

Can Indoor Air Pollution Impact Studying?

Yes. In fact, indoor air pollution is often a bigger danger than outdoor air pollution, and it can also have an impact on studying and exam results.

Sources:

  1. Ali, Naureen A, and Adeel Khoja. “Growing Evidence for the Impact of Air Pollution on Depression.” The Ochsner journal vol. 19,1 (2019): 4. doi:10.31486/toj.19.0011
  2. Seltenrich, Nate. “Air Pollution and Suicide: Exploring a Potential Risk Factor.” Environmental health perspectives vol. 126,7 074002. 27 Jul. 2018, doi:10.1289/EHP3901
  3. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) – “Air Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/air-pollution’ [Online Resource]
  4. Jennifer A. Ailshire, Philippa Clarke. “Fine Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cognitive Function Among U.S. Older Adults”. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B, Volume 70, Issue 2, March 2015: 322-328. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbu064
  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1987. The total exposure assessment methodology (TEAM) study: Summary and analysis. EPA/600/6-87/002a. Washington, DC.
  6. Roth, S. “Air pollution, educational achievements, and human capital formation”. IZA World of Labor 2017: 381 doi: 10.15185/izawol.381
  7. Xin Zhang, et al. “The impact of exposure to air pollution on cognitive performance”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2018, 115 (37) 9193-9197; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1809474115
  8. Xin Zhang, et al. “The impact of exposure to air pollution on cognitive performance”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2018, 115 (37) 9193-9197; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1809474115
  9. Antonella Zanobetti, et al. “Associations of PM10 with Sleep and Sleep-disordered Breathing in Adults from Seven U.S. Urban Areas”. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Volume 182, Issue 6, May 27, 2010. doi:10.1164/rccm.200912-1797OC
  10. Ruth K.Raanaas, Katinka Horgen Evense, DebraRich, Gunn Sjøstrøm, Grete Patil. “Benefits of indoor plants on attention capacity in an office setting”. Journal of Environmental Psychology vol. 31,1 March 2011, doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.11.005

2 thoughts on “Air Pollution and Its Impacts on Studying”

  1. Very interesting stuff, having an extra reason for indoor plants sits well with me haha. Thanks for all the information!

    1. Thank you, Sam! I appreciate your kind words!

      I never realised how much of an impact plants had… Now I will definitely need to get some! Haha.

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