health care

New EPA Proposal on Pollution Could Lead to More Students With Asthma Missing School

How could my students succeed if they were not able to come to class?

It was a question I used to struggle with constantly. Prior to entering medical school, I worked as a middle school teacher in Newark, New Jersey. My students primarily came from underserved communities, and most were eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Their home lives, admittedly, were generally far more complex and difficult than my own life had been growing up.

Upon starting my new job, I was initially surprised to find that a significant proportion of my students suffered from respiratory disease, of which asthma was the most common culprit. Unlike the kids with asthma I had grown up with in the suburbs, my students tended to suffer from more frequent and severe exacerbations of their disease, which kept them out of school for longer periods of time. As the school year progressed, and the missed school days piled up, these students were understandably at the highest risk of falling behind.

By keeping kids out of school, asthma threatens the educational success of students across the country. In fact, children with asthma are significantly more likely to miss time from school as their counterparts without asthma. It is for this reason that I was particularly alarmed to discover that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering taking steps that would ultimately allow it to loosen pollution standards on fine particulate matter, microscopic particles in the air that can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and adversely affect human health.

In 2011 alone, fine particulate matter was responsible for over 100,000 premature deaths in the United States and cost the country nearly a trillion dollars.

By burrowing deep into the lungs, fine particulate matter can damage the airways and result in or exacerbate respiratory disease. It has been linked to higher rates of asthma in adolescents. And among children with asthma, exposure to fine particulate matter leads to more frequent disease exacerbations (or “attacks”), emergency room visits, and inpatient hospitalizations.

I fear that a decision by the EPA to relax pollution standards on fine particulate matter would most curtail the educational opportunities available to students living in urban areas. Children in urban settings already suffer from higher rates of asthma, and research has shown that living in an urban area isa strong independent risk factor for increased asthma morbidity, including more frequent emergency room visits and hospitalizations. As a result, these children are already at high-risk of missing school, and relaxing pollution standards would only make the problem worse.

How will these students be able to keep up with their classmates if they are too sick to make it to class in the first place?

Being a student or teacher in an urban school is already hard enough. An additional, artificial obstacle to educational success from the EPA in the form of looser pollution standards on fine particulate matter would directly harm students’ health and threaten their ability to learn. As such, the EPA would be wise to reconsider pursuing such a misguided proposal.

Kunal Sindhu is a resident physician in New York City. Before going to medical school, he worked as a middle school science teacher in Newark, New Jersey, and remains interested in the link between education and health outcomes.

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