Study shows that pollution can impact students’ performance at school 

Project analyzed ENEM data from the last two decades, as well as geographical data monitored by satellites, to assess how environmental quality affects cognitive health.
01 十二月 2022
Study shows that pollution can impact students’ performance at school 

It is widely understood that negative environmental impacts can generate numerous consequences for the world and society. However, in addition to climate change and economic risks caused by pollution, researchers at Fundação Getulio Vargas’ School of Public Policy and Government (FGV EPPG) in Brasilia recently investigated the impacts that poor environmental indicators can have on the cognitive capacity of people, especially the educational performance of children and adolescents.

According to the study’s lead researcher, Weeberb Réquia Júnior, the more pollution there is around schools, the lower students’ cognitive performance, leading to worse grades. He claims that this hypothesis was proven some time ago in European countries and the United States, but it was only established in Brazil in this study, which was carried out in the Federal District. The research project will now use funding from FGV, in partnership with the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), to analyze data in order to assess the situation throughout Brazil.  

“Through analysis involving advanced techniques in geostatistics and biostatistics, the results of this study can contribute to public policies in education, health and obviously the environment. Our main objective is to allow students to reach their full academic and physiological potential,” says the researcher, noting that environmental quality can also have a positive influence, given that green areas around schools can provide benefits for learning.

Réquia Júnior explains how this process takes place in practice. “Suppose that a densely populated part of your city has a school, where students spend most of their days. There they are exposed to the environmental quality of that place and when a child or teenager breathes in polluted air, atmospheric gases and particulates reach various organs in the body, harming the functioning of the respiratory, circulatory and even nervous systems. This can have an impact on cognitive performance. Although these factors have an impact on test results, such as the National High School Exam (ENEM), it is necessary to understand that this biological process occurred before,” he says.

Data analysis

To carry out the nationwide study, individual-level analysis will be performed to enhance statistical accuracy. Individual data related to all the students who took ENEM in Brazil between 2000 and 2019 will be accessed. Spatial analysis techniques will be applied to this data in order to estimate the environmental quality in the area around each student’s school. Réquia Júnior points out that this information is present in ENEM’s microdata. According to him, environmental quality will be represented by four factors: air pollution, green areas, weather variations and forest fires.

After collecting the data, the project will develop two indicators based on the level of environmental exposure and the impact of exposure on educational performance. The first indicator will be represented by the concentration of atmospheric pollutants around schools, green areas per square kilometer, temperature variations and area of forest fires. The impact of environmental exposure on students’ educational performance will be associated with exposure variables and ENEM results.

In addition, other databases will be used, provided by organizations such as NASA, the Education Ministry’s National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP), the National Meteorology Institute (INMET) and the National Space Research Institute (INPE). Specifically for green areas, the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) will be used. This is considered one of the most consistent indicators of green areas based on remote monitoring.  

Impact on public policies

In recent years, environmental impact studies have expanded to cover areas such as environmental inequalities and the strengthening of health and environmental quality as social determinants of health, influencing people’s quality of life. However, according to Réquia Júnior, who is also studying environmental impacts in other areas, such as health, there are still few studies that analyze environmental impacts on people’s cognitive processes.

“Evidence has shown that children and adolescents can experience negative effects when they are exposed to poor environmental quality around schools, which reduce students’ cognitive ability and result in poor test scores. Therefore, this project seeks to deepen these investigations in Brazil to verify the link between environmental exposure and academic performance among elementary and high school students,” he explains.

As well as seeking to validate this hypothesis at national level, the research project in question is expected to contribute knowledge on topics related to environmental exposure and academic performance of adolescents, which will be able to support public policies. “The project also aims to pass on this information to environmental, urban planning, health and education authorities, in order to guide public policies and produce maps with indicators that facilitate the allocation of resources to high-priority regions,” he says.


While this research work to confirm this information at national level is in progress, Réquia Júnior says he is also studying the environment’s influence on health, working together with other researchers at universities in the United States and Europe to see how environmental quality relates to people’s health. “It has already been proven that fires, pollution, deforestation and temperature variations are factors that are related to the occurrence of hospitalizations, mortality, low birth weight and premature births,” he says.

You can see the study on environmental quality and students’ cognitive processes in the Federal District, as well as other studies about environmental impacts on health and learning, via this link.

Support and funding

This research is funded by FGV’s Applied Research Fund, which since 2014 has supported more than 271 projects, selected by FGV’s Research and Innovation Commission. In addition to FGV, this project also involves collaboration with researchers at Canadian and American universities, building on research coordinated by Professor Réquia Júnior in Brazil, which has also received funding from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). 

Applied scientific research

Applied scientific research is the main focus of FGV’s Research and Knowledge Network, which was created in 2016 to promote world-class, high-impact research in different areas of society, with a high level of innovation. By proposing different processes and solutions to the challenges faced by the Brazilian population, this research is in line with FGV’s mission to promote Brazil’s socioeconomic growth.

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