Background Road traffic noise is a prevalent and known health hazard. However, little is known yet about its effect on children’s cognition. We aimed to study the association between exposure to road traffic noise and the development of working memory and attention in primary school children, considering school-outdoor and school-indoor annual average noise levels and noise fluctuation characteristics, as well as home-outdoor noise exposure. Methods and findings We followed up a population-based sample of 2,680 children aged 7 to 10 years from 38 schools in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain) between January 2012 to March 2013. Children underwent computerised cognitive tests 4 times (n = 10,112), for working memory (2-back task, detectability), complex working memory (3-back task, detectability), and inattentiveness (Attention Network Task, hit reaction time standard error, in milliseconds). Road traffic noise was measured indoors and outdoors at schools, at the start of the school year, using standard protocols to obtain A-weighted equivalent sound pressure levels, i.e., annual average levels scaled to human hearing, for the daytime (daytime LAeq, in dB). We also derived fluctuation indicators out of the measurements (noise intermittency ratio, %; and number of noise events) and obtained individual estimated indoor noise levels (LAeq) correcting for classroom orientation and classroom change between years. Home-outdoor noise exposure at home (Lden, i.e., EU indicator for the 24-hour annual average levels) was estimated using Barcelona’s noise map for year 2012, according to the European Noise Directive (2002). We used linear mixed models to evaluate the association between exposure to noise and cognitive development adjusting for age, sex, maternal education, socioeconomical vulnerability index at home, indoor or outdoor traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) for corresponding school models or outdoor nitrogen dioxide (NO2) for home models. Child and school were included as nested random effects. The median age (percentile 25, percentile 75) of children in visit 1 was 8.5 (7.8; 9.3) years, 49.9% were girls, and 50% of the schools were public. School-outdoor exposure to road traffic noise was associated with a slower development in working memory (2-back and 3-back) and greater inattentiveness over 1 year in children, both for the average noise level (e.g., −4.83 points [95% CI: −7.21, −2.45], p-value < 0.001, in 2-back detectability per 5 dB in street levels) and noise fluctuation (e.g., −4.38 [−7.08, −1.67], p-value = 0.002, per 50 noise events at street level). Individual exposure to the road traffic average noise level in classrooms was only associated with inattentiveness (2.49 ms [0, 4.81], p-value = 0.050, per 5 dB), whereas indoor noise fluctuation was consistently associated with all outcomes. Home-outdoor noise exposure was not associated with the outcomes. Study limitations include a potential lack of generalizability (58% of mothers with university degree in our study versus 50% in the region) and the lack of past noise exposure assessment. Conclusions We observed that exposure to road traffic noise at school, but not at home, was associated with slower development of working memory, complex working memory, and attention in schoolchildren over 1 year. Associations with noise fluctuation indicators were more evident than with average noise levels in classrooms.
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