January 12, 2010                               

AMHERST, Mass.—High levels of air pollution—even levels considered acceptable by federal standards—markedly increase school absences, according to a new study by AmherstCollege economics professor Steven Rivkin, his former student E. Megan Kahn Shaw ’04 and a team of researchers. The group’s findings, which were published in a paper in the current issue of The Review of Economics and Statistics, also suggest that the substantial decline in carbon monoxide (CO) in the atmosphere over the past two decades, due to air quality regulations, has resulted in “economically significant” health benefits.

Rivkin, Shaw and their colleagues from Columbia and Stanford universities estimated the effect of air pollution on elementary and middle school absences using administrative data on school attendance and student demographic characteristics between 1986 and 2001 in 39 of the largest school districts in Texas. These data were matched with ozone, particulate matter and CO levels, as recorded by pollution monitors maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). High amounts of CO in particular—including at rates below the regulatory threshold set by the EPA—increased absenteeism among children, they found.

CO (not to be confused with CO2, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide) is emitted from incomplete combustions occurring in fires, internal combustion engines, appliances and tobacco smoke, with cars accounting for as much as 90 percent of CO in urban areas, said Rivkin. In addition to contributing to global warming, CO has profound effects on humans: By bonding with hemoglobin in the blood, CO impairs the transport of oxygen in the body, leading to cardiovascular and respiratory problems.

“Kids are particularly sensitive to pollution, given their small size, high metabolic rates and developing systems,” said Rivkin. “Our study provides evidence that high CO levels impose substantial costs on children and their families. The results also highlight the importance of close monitoring of pollution levels and research that isolates the effects of pollutants on health and the ability of children to perform their daily activities.” Additional evidence on the structure of pollution effects is an important component of efforts to improve public health and environmental policies, he added.

Rivkin is Amherst’s Rachel and Michael Deutch Professor of Economics and chair of the college’s economics department. His research focuses on topics in the economics and sociology of education that tend to be closely related to current policy discussions. He has authored or co-authored a number of papers exploring the effectiveness of charter schools and parental responsiveness to charter school quality, the impacts of school desegregation on achievement and enrollment, racial achievement differences and the benefits of smaller classes, among many other topics. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Michigan and both his master’s and Ph.D. in economics from UCLA.

To read the paper in its entirety, go to http://www.mitpressjournals.org/toc/rest/91/4.

Founded in 1821, AmherstCollege is a highly selective, coeducational liberal arts college with approximately 1,600 students from most of the 50 states and more than 30 other countries. Considered one of the nation’s best educational institutions, Amherst awards the B.A. degree in 34 fields of study.