Free federal money can help make our kids smarter

Air pollution affects brain development at every stage of life, and air purifiers can help.

Al Hartman | The Salt Lake Tribune More than 300 local students from the Madeleine Choir School and the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts marched down State Street to gather in the Capitol Rotunda for Clean Air, February 4, 2016.

As a neurosurgeon, I understand some of the intricacies of the human brain and work to protect the human brain from harm. Air pollution can significantly damage the brain at every stage of life, from the early stages of brain development in utero when the brain is growing rapidly, to the frail and fragile brain of the elderly. It was recently estimated that 20% of Alzheimer’s cases are due to air pollution.

Utahans face more than our share of air pollution threats. Global warming increases tropospheric ozone. Smoke from forest fires, dust from the Great Salt Lake, gravel pits and mines, and vehicle exhaust create air pollution, including ultrafine particles known as PM 2.5. These particles are so small that they can bypass the brain’s blood-brain barrier, an ingenious mechanism that protects the brain from infections, cancer and other toxins.

These ultrafine PM 2.5 and smaller particles can enter the nose and latch onto the olfactory nerve, which has a direct path to the brain. These particles often carry heavy metals, which can trigger inflammation. Chronic brain inflammation has been shown to be associated with accelerated brain aging leading to neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia, MS and ALS.

Air pollution has implications for all of us, including school children. By entering through the nose, lungs and bloodstream, pollution particles contaminate the brain in large numbers, millions per gram of brain tissue. Autopsy studies indicate that we are all affected.

Within 30 minutes of inhaling diesel exhaust, at levels comparable to highway traffic or school buses, the brains of healthy volunteers show inflammation and a cortical stress response that is evident in their EEG tracings, a tool for measuring brain waves. The stress persists long after the exposure has ended. In similar real-life situations, young students may already arrive at school with a significant learning disadvantage after being exposed to air pollution.

Corresponding clinical studies show that pollution inhaled by school children on the way to school and outside during recess impairs their working memory on the day. A recent study of third-grade students in Salt Lake City found that high-frequency spikes in air pollution exposure led to decreased math and English skills. Impaired pollution scores can limit career success levels and career income.

In adults, air pollution can impair cognition, judgment, and executive functioning. Chess players make more mistakes when inhaling higher levels of particulate pollution and professional baseball umpires make more incorrect calls. Indoor factory workers suffer lower productivity and make more mistakes on the assembly line when exposed to higher levels of outdoor pollution, even at levels considered ‘safe’ per EPA standards. Even stock traders fare worse during higher air pollution in New York and other trading centers.

We can stop these terrible effects on the brain. Recent studies have shown that improving air quality slows the age-related decline in brain function in older people.

Children who live near sources of industrial pollution improve their test scores and reduce school truancy and suspensions when those chimneys are closed.

Simple classroom air purifiers can remove many air pollutants, including PM 2.5, even when baseline pollution is well below EPA standards. This reduction translates into improved student performance, even more than standard interventions such as reducing class size by 30%, “high-dose” tutoring, increasing family income with a working income tax or the Head Start program.

For three years, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment has been asking our Utah legislators to help our vulnerable children by purchasing air purifiers for every classroom in the state. When the pandemic hit, the need for air purifiers to help sequester reduce the transmission of COVID-19 added urgency to our demand.

Here comes the free money part…

Thanks to a recent federal grant, Utah now has the funds to purchase air purifiers without Utah taxpayers or schools footing the bill. UPHE has partnered with the Utah State Department of Health to implement these air purifiers in as many K-12 classrooms as possible – public, private and charter schools. Not only will these air purifiers improve student and teacher health, decrease the transmission of COVID and other diseases, and reduce student and teacher absenteeism, but they will also improve student performance. When so many students have fallen behind due to the pandemic, this has become even more important. And in the long run, air purifiers will also contribute to better brain development.

This federal money must be used by July 2023 or it will be withdrawn. UPHE will contact every school district and charter school in the state to inform them of the program and its unique benefits, encouraging school administrators to sign up and teachers to use them daily once they arrive. We encourage parents and teachers to get involved and ensure their schools and districts sign up for the program.

We are asking all parents, grandparents, and teachers to contact their local school and school board to advocate for air purifiers for our students in Utah. Every Utah student deserves the best possible environment for brain development and academic success.

To ensure your school receives these air purifiers, visit our website, or email

John MacfarlaneMD, is a neurosurgeon and board member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

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