UNESCO Chair Global Health and Education Health Education, Prevention, Health Promotion, Children and Young People

Education and Environmental Health

Improving the health of all and reducing inequalities requires a renewed focus on the actual physical environment of schools. Two studies, conducted in North America, highlight the link between pollution in the school environment and educational success (reading and mathematics assessments, behavioural incidents and absence). These studies examine the influence of traffic pollution on the one hand and industrial sites on the other.

Educational success and the factors that influence it are major public health issues. Indeed, the research data show that the level of education strongly influences health. As the OECD report on health-related learning points out,

“This is not primarily a question of providing more specific health-based learning but of recognising and investing in the wider impact of general learning in education contexts through the lifecourse.” 

(http://www.oecd.org/education/innovation-education/37437718.pdf, page 176). The first priority for improving health and reducing inequalities is to ensure that all students are in school and that succed. Health goals are inseparable from educational goals; schools that promote health are first and foremost schools where the quality of education provided to students is high.

Alongside the issues of school management, family and community links, the availability of medical and social services in the school environment, and teaching (general knowledge and skills, health education pathways), the physical and social environment is a determinant of students’ educational success. Indeed, children and young people spend 40% of their awake time at school. Factors related to the surrounding air, ventilation, lighting, noise, sanitary facilities, cleanliness of the premises and catering are key elements of successful education.

Local and regional authorities are making considerable efforts in this area, particularly with regard to school canteens and sanitary facilities. As far as pollution is concerned, we are only just at the beginning of an ongoing process that ought to bring about a new way of thinking about the educational ecosystem. In fact, school spaces welcome children and young people, i.e. individuals in the process of development, people whose nervous system and other biological systems are in the maturation state. The long-term impact of social and environmental factors is much greater than it is for adults. Approaches to the organization of schools must be based on research evidence on both exposure and impact on young people.

Promoting the health of children and young people means giving them the knowledge, skills and culture to take responsibility for their own health and to contribute collectively to social change for health. This can only be achieved if every student is provided with an appropriate school environment. This is all the more decisive as inequalities in housing already affect the most socially vulnerable children. It is therefore crucial to build an alliance (researchers, States, local authorities, professionals, associations, parents, students, etc.) to take action on the school environment and to prevent schools from contributing to an increase in the deleterious effects of some environmental factors on education and health.

Does Pollution Drive Achievement? The Effect of Traffic Pollution on Academic Performance (Jennifer Heissel, Claudia Persico et David Simon 2019)

The Effects of Local Industrial Pollution on Students and Schools (Claudia Persico et Joanna Venator 2019)