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A No Brainer: Strengthen Air Quality Standards Now

05/11/2015 11:42 am ET | Updated May 11, 2016

Does your kid have learning problems? Does he have problems concentrating and he is easily distracted? Is he doing poorly in school?

There can be a host of reasons for these problems. But a recent study is confirming the notion that pollution coming from fossil fuels, such as gasoline and coal, can inflict lasting damage on the human brain development, especially in fetuses, babies and toddlers, and that we Latinos are disproportionally affected by it.

The report --published by JAMA Psychiatry and originated by Columbia University-- concludes that exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a residue of fossil fuel combustion, is correlated to the reduction of white matter in the brain.

"Those disturbances in brain growth are in turn proportionately associated with cognitive slowing and a host of behavioral disturbances," says Dr. Bradley Peterson, the study's lead scientist and director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.

These include attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity, typical symptoms of impulsive children and children with learning problems.

Latino and African-American families, two social groups disproportionally impacted by air pollution, participated in the study from 1997 to 2006. Researchers observed a key finding in children: the greater the exposure to PAHs in the womb was, the greater the reduction in white matter and the worse their behavioral and developmental problems later in life.

"It is logical to hypothesize that these disturbances contribute to poor academic and high school dropouts, but that hypothesis would need to be addressed specifically in a larger study that explicitly assessed academic performance and school dropout, which we did not do in our study," says Dr. Peterson. "But I do agree that something serious must be done to tackle the problem of the effects that air pollution has on the developing brain."

The study also revealed that the brain disturbances not only take place during the fetal period, but also that exposure to PAHs can aggravate the reduction of white matter in the early childhood.

Dr. Peterson is not optimistic about reversing the damage caused by fossil fuel pollution on the brain.

"At the present time we know of no interventions that can prevent or reverse the brain and behavioral effects of exposure to air pollution during fetal development and early childhood," he says. "The only recommendation that can be made at this time is either to find ways of reducing exposure in pregnant women and young children to levels of air pollution that already exist or to reducing extant levels of air pollution."

But that reduction, for us Latinos, is not materializing. In its recent 2015 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association again underscored that the vast majority of the country's cities with the worst air quality are found in Southern and Central California, where tens of millions of Latinos live. In places like Los Angeles, Long Beach, Bakersfield and the San Joaquin Valley all too often breathing is dangerous to your health.

The EPA is currently considering improving the federal smog pollution standard from its current 75 parts per billion (ppb) to perhaps 65 ppb. But health experts insist that in order to truly protect public health, the standard should be no higher than 60 ppb.

Asked whether his study reinforces the notion that clean air standards must be stronger, Dr. Peterson is categorical: "Yes, our findings do reinforce that notion. And they reinforce it for the most vulnerable members of our society, young children."

Clearly, this is a no brainer: the EPA has the moral obligation to truly strengthen the nation's air quality standards.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC