Air pollution is responsible for harming footballers'' performance. That is the main finding of research by Andreas Lichter, Nico Pestel and Eric Sommer, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016.

Their study looks at professional footballers in Germany from 1999-2011. By comparing the number of passes made by a player in a match with the level of air pollution at that time in that area, it finds that even low levels of pollution lead to players doing worse. This effect becomes stronger as the player gets older, and occurs even if the player normally plays in a completely different part of the country.

The European Environment Agency already rates the cost of environmental damage at €60-200 billion, and air pollution is one of the top risks for premature death. The authors conclude that if even a select group of young athletes are so affected by particulates and pollution, then workers across the world could also be doing much worse at their jobs, impeding overall economic growth.


Air pollution is the top environmental risk factor of premature death. Annual costs of environmental damage for the European countries range between €60 and €200 billion, according to the European Environment Agency. The trade-off between the population health benefits of limiting air pollution and the negative impacts on industrial activity and employment has been well documented in economic research.

A new study by Andreas Lichter, Nico Pestel and Eric Sommer looks at an aspect that is highly relevant in this context – the negative effect of environmental pollution on individual labour productivity.

The study is based on panel data for professional footballers in Germany over the period 1999-2011. Professional sports data offer consistent and comparable measures of productivity, which are largely missing for other occupations.

The authors use a player''s total number of passes per match as the main productivity indicator and combine this data with hourly information on the concentration of particulate matter in spatial proximity to each stadium at the time of kickoff.

The match scheduling rules of the ''Bundesliga'' are beyond the control of teams and players. This setting creates exogenous variation in the players'' exposure to air pollution, thus overcoming endogeneity concerns arising from residential sorting and avoidance behaviour.

The findings indicate negative and non-linear effects of air pollution on short-run productivity even for levels well below the current limits set by the European Union. The impairment of performance further increases with the age of players and is stronger if they face an additional physical burden.

Given that even moderate concentrations of particulate matter negatively affect the productivity of a selective group of young and male athletes to a considerable extent, the authors conclude that environmental pollution does not only affect population health but also impedes economic growth.

Productivity Effects of Air Pollution: Evidence from Professional Soccer – Andreas Lichter, Nico Pestel, Eric Sommer