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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia: The Health of Our Brains — What’s Polluted Air Got to Do With It?

The regulation of air pollution has reduced its toll on heart and lung diseases. However, in a series of papers, Dr. Matthew Neidell, Columbia University Mailman School professor of health policy and management, and colleagues, report that polluted air also puts our brain at risk. The findings published in Environmental Health Perspectives show that short-term exposures were associated with the productivity of workers.

When Dr. Neidell began to study air pollution and productivity, he started with people who work primarily outdoors. He followed this with studies of indoor workers in manufacturing and call center employees in China and found consistent evidence that higher levels of outdoor air pollution were associated with decreased worker output as well as with call center employees. “They were completing fewer calls and taking more breaks on days with high air pollution,” Dr. Neidell says.

As to whether PM2.5 influences cognitive functions, Dr. Neidell and colleagues analyzed 10 years of S&P 500 investment returns as a proxy for the job performance of stockbrokers, and found that higher ambient PM2.5 levels in NY were associated with reduced stock trading returns. To interpret this finding, Dr. Neidell points to studies suggesting that lower cognitive ability may lead to more risk-averse behavior and a shift toward less risky investments.

Findings have wide-ranging implications because “stock price variations send signals across the U.S. and international economy,” he noted. To follow up, Neidell is now doing a campus-based study — testing whether the decision-making ability of Columbia students varies with outdoor PM2.5 levels, as measured at the building where the students are assessed.

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