Inequality Before Birth: The Developmental Consequences of Environmental Toxicants (WP-16-06)


Claudia Persico, David Figlio, and Jeffrey Roth

Millions of tons of hazardous wastes have been produced in the United States in the last 60 years which have been dispersed into the air, into water, and on and under the ground. Using new population-level data that follows cohorts of children born in the state of Florida between 1994 and 2002, this working paper examines the short and long-term effects of prenatal exposure to environmental toxicants on children living within two miles of a Superfund site, toxic waste sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as being particularly severe. The researchers compare siblings living within two miles from a Superfund site at birth where at least one sibling was conceived before or during cleanup of the site, and the other(s) was conceived after the site cleanup was completed using a family fixed effects model. Children conceived to mothers living within 2 miles of a Superfund site before it was cleaned are 7.4 percentage points more likely to repeat a grade, have 0.06 of a standard deviation lower test scores, and are 6.6 percentage points more likely to be suspended from school than their siblings who were conceived after the site was cleaned. Children conceived to mothers living within one mile of a Superfund site before it was cleaned are 10 percentage points more likely to be diagnosed with a cognitive disability than their later born siblings as well. These results tend to be larger and are more statistically significant than the estimated effects of proximity to a Superfund site on birth outcomes. This study suggests that the cleanup of severe toxic waste sites has significant positive effects on a variety of long-term cognitive and developmental outcomes for children.

Claudia Persico, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis, University of Wisconsin–Madison

David N. Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics; Director and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University; and Faculty Research Associate, NBER

Jeffrey Roth, Research Professor of Pediatrics, University of Florida

PDF icon Download working paper PDF