Commentary: Air pollutions nasty effects should motivate stronger action but hasnt

LONDON: Everybody loves a good productivity hack. Clever tips on getting more from each working hour are a well-loved genre, from complicated to-do lists and tomato-shaped timers, to advice on mindfulness and the merits of going barefoot.

Thats not to mention the supposed gains in creativity and concentration from surrounding your desk with the colours red and blue.



But there is one action that seldom appears on these lists, despite a growing volume of evidence to suggest it has a pronounced effect on both physical and mental productivity: Working in a location with good air quality.


Particulates — especially fine and ultrafine particles below 2.5 micrometres in diameter — are widely recognised as a long-term health issue, even if many people do not appreciate the scale of the harm or how extensive the evidence has become.

Inhaling particulates leads to a higher risk of dementia and causes one-third of all deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease, according to the World Health Organisation.



Recent research, however, suggests air pollution is not just a long-term health issue that causes unpleasant diseases as you age.

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It also stunts child development and appears to have an instantaneous effect on productivity: You become slower and dumber while breathing polluted air. This should have a profound effect on attitudes to air quality.

Humans are notoriously good at discounting long-term health risks from cigarettes and alcohol. But to have your cognition impaired right here, right now, as you try to work or study is something else.

A man wearing a respiratory protection mask walks toward an office building during the smog after a red alert was issued for heavy air pollution in Beijing's central business district, China, December 21, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Lee/Files)

The evidence increasingly suggests that particulates do not just penetrate the heart and lungs but also the brain.

The health impact should be enough to motivate action. But if confirmed, these effects also change the economics. Ill-health at the end of life subtract from the sum of human health and happiness, but damage to young brains suggests a direct, accumulating effect on productivity and human capital. Tackling particulates, in other words, might raise not just output but its growth rate.


The immediate, on-the-day effects of air pollution can be surprisingly large. The economists Avraham Ebenstein, Victor Lavy and Sefi Roth show that a modest increase in particulates on the day of an Israeli students high school exams is associated with a significant decline in exam results.

These exams shape a students life career so that brief exposure to air pollution has lasting consequences, leading to an average of 0.15 fewer years of university education and ultimately US$30 less in monthly salary.

Every child has to take the exams and the date is fixed, so richer students cannot dodge the pollution and the authors can control for factors such as school quality.

Consider the extremes parents will go to improve their childs exam results or get them into a better university. Yet their life chances can be blighted by a single day of air pollution.

A student and his father wear masks outside a public school, as classes in over 400 Bangkok schools have been cancelled due to worsening air pollution, in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan 30, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha_

Another recent study by Tom Chang, Joshua Zivin, Tal Gross and Matthew Neidell looks at call centre staff working for the same company in different Chinese cities.

On polluted days, productivity fell by 5 to 6 per cent, and the effect was evident at air pollution levels often found in Europe and the US. Again, consider what else companies will do for a 5 to 6 per cent gain in productivity.


The effects on physical labour are less surprising but still striking. There are studies showing lower productivity for citrus pickers exposed to higher ozone levels.

There are studies showing that German professional footballers — who cannot change the date or venue for a fixture — make fewer passes on days with greater air pollution.

Then there are the horrible effects found in many studies of child development. One shows that living in an area of the US with high carbon monoxid