The cognitive meltdown: radiation and cognitive skills after birth

The ESRI organises a public seminar series, inviting researchers from both the ESRI and other institutions to present new research on a variety of public policy issues. The seminar series provides access to specialised knowledge and new research methodologies, with the objective of promoting research excellence and facilitating productive dialogue across the policy and research fields.

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Guest speaker 

Benjamin Elsner, School of Economics, University College Dublin

Seminar topic

This research studies the long-term effect of post-natal radiation exposure on cognitive skills. We use regional variation in nuclear fallout after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, which led to an increase in radiation levels in most of Europe. In order to identify a causal effect, we exploit the fact that the degree of soil contamination depended on rainfall within a critical ten-day window after the disaster. Based on unique geo-coded survey data from Germany, we show that people who lived in highly-contaminated areas in 1986 perform significantly worse in standardized cognitive tests 25 years later. This effect is driven by the older cohorts in our sample, whereas we find no effect for people who were first exposed at the ages of 0-7. These results suggest that pollution can have adverse effects even when people are first exposed as adults, and point to significant external costs of man-made sources of radiation. 

Speaker bio

Dr Benjamin Elsner is an Assistant Professor of Economics at University College Dublin. His research lies at the intersection of labor economics, public economics and microeconometrics. His current research agenda focuses on the determinants of people's investment in human capital and the impact of these investments on life outcomes such as health, educational attainment and success in the labor market.