From the Field

Pollution’s Troubling Consequences in the Classroom

Research has demonstrated that lead and other pollutant exposure can cause serious damage to children’s brains as they are developing, and effects can show up in the classroom, with lead exposure tied to students being less attentive and more disruptive. However, little research has been done on the “spillover” effect that students exposed to lead have on their peers.

In a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers Ludovica Gazze, Claudia Persico, and Sandra Spirovska found significant impacts on other students in the classroom. 

The researchers looked at both education data and children’s preschool blood lead levels for public school students in North Carolina. The researchers then compared the outcomes of siblings who attended the same school but were in grades with significantly different proportions of students with high preschool lead levels. The researchers controlled for race and socioeconomic status. 

The results indicated that having more lead-exposed children in a grade led to an increase in the likelihood of suspension from school, a decrease in the likelihood that a student graduates high school, and higher likelihoods of chronic absenteeism and dropping out of school. Also, the researchers found that students in grades with more lead-exposed peers were less likely to take the SAT. These results suggest that the social cost of lead exposure is even more significant than previously thought. 

The researchers state that these results have important policy implications, making efforts to address lead hazards for students essential in tackling education inequity. Further, given that Black students face significantly higher levels of lead exposure, the researchers argue that additional efforts to desegregate students might be beneficial in combating this issue.

By Catherine Dragone

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.