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Links Found Between Air Pollution and Degenerative Brain Diseases

alzhiemers air pollution

The latest research indicates yet more reasons to go green — namely because not doing so could cost us our mental health. Air pollution has now been linked with degenerative cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The immense number of cars on the road with inefficient combustion infuses the air we breathe with fine and ultrafine particles — specks of waste at least 36 times finer than a grain of sand, often riddled with toxic combinations of sulfate, nitrate and ammonium ions, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals. We have long known that these tiny particles cause and exacerbate respiratory problems like asthma and cancers of the lungs — but they also contribute to a diverse range of disorders, from heart disease to obesity. And new research links them to some of the most terrifying illnesses: degenerative brain diseases.

While coarse pollution particles seldom make it past our upper lungs, fine and ultrafine particles can travel from our nostrils along neural pathways directly into our brains. From there, they can kick off or accelerate degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Autopsies of the brains of people who lived in highly contaminated areas have turned up traces of pollution with corresponding brain trauma. And among those still living, epidemiologists have recorded elevated rates of brain disease and an accelerated mental decline.

In fact, life expectancy in cities in India has decreased by three years because of pollution. In the States, baby boomers are only now entering the phase of life when degenerative diseases usually emerge. Because they were born before the Clean Air Act of 1970, they’ve been exposed far longer to worse air pollution than any generation before or after them.

The good news is that in America, thanks to the Clean Air Act and its amendments in 1990, air is the cleanest it’s been in four decades. As of 2000, U.S. criteria pollutant emissions decreased for CO, VOC, and NOx, and increased for Pb, SO2, and PM10 from the previous year. The increase in SO2 emission estimates is a result of a modest increase in emissions in the electric utility and industrial process sectors, probably fueled by the strong economy. The reduction in CO and VOC emissions results from a sharp decrease in emissions from forest wildfires, as well as a decrease in mobile source emissions as a result of the use of new fuels. Particulate fugitive dust emissions from construction sources, paved roads, and unpaved roads increased due to increases in construction and VMT.

The level and composition of economic activity in the nation, demographic influences, meteorological conditions, and regulatory efforts to control emissions affect the trends in criteria air pollutant emissions. A recent study in Environmental Health and Technology estimated that we could avoid two million deaths globally by cleaning up the world’s air.

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