Wednesday, June 24, 2015

More Evidence of Air Pollution's Impact on Health, This Time Our Brains

photo by secret squirrelNew research links air pollution from fossil fuels like coal and oil - particularly from diesel engines - to dementia, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, as Aaron Reuben reports for Mother Jones:
Controlling for things like ethnicity, gender, income, education, and other possible environmental exposures (including cigarette smoke), elderly individuals living in areas with polluted air appear to lose their mental abilities faster, show more predementia symptoms (also known as mild cognitive impairment), and develop Alzheimer's disease at greater rates. Six years ago, researchers in Germany assessed the cognitive abilities of 399 elderly women who lived in the same place for more than 20 years. Regardless of her socioeconomic status, the closer a woman lived to a busy road, the authors reported, the greater the chance that she would have mild cognitive impairment.

Four years ago, researchers from Harvard linked estimates of higher daily exposure to black carbon, a solid type of fine particulate matter, to lower cognitive ability in older men in Boston. In a larger, national study tracking the mental status of more than 19,000 retired nurses over several years, researchers connected the rate of mental decline in women 70 and older to their exposure to coarse- and fine-particle pollution and found that those exposed to more particles lost their mental abilities at a faster rate. In a group of 95,690 elderly Taiwanese, researchers this year found that a slight increase in fine-particle exposure over 10 years led to a 138 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. A smaller, more recent study published in the Annals of Neurology followed 1,403 elderly women without dementia. Scientists found that exposure to air pollution over time to led to a major decrease in the subjects' white matter, a part of the brain essential for cognition. [...]

And there is growing evidence that particle pollution's assault on the mind is not limited to elderly brains. Researchers in Mexico City, which still has some of the worst urban air on the planet, have found signs of advanced brain damage in children as young as six and seven years old: overactive immune cells, degraded white matter, and damaged vasculature typically seen only in older brains. In one autopsy study comparing children raised in Mexico City with their counterparts in less polluted parts of the country, half the Mexico City children had notable aggregations of a protein called amyloid beta—which is strongly associated with Alzheimer's—grouped in clumps across their brains. In the children from less polluted areas, there were none.
If all costs remained the same, and global warming were not occuring, it would still be worth it strictly from a public health perspective to end our use of fossil fuels. From lead damaging our children's brains to air pollution's link to autism to mercury's link to ADHD, the toll of coal and oil pollution is incalculably immense.

But the climate crisis is already well underway and the costs of inaction are staggering, which makes the decision a complete slam dunk. That our elected officials aren't moving us away from polluting energy as quickly as possible shows that there are truly enormous amounts of money to be made from keeping us hooked on fossil fuels and maintaining our energy status quo.

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