Will the so-called progress of civilization eventually destroy us? Indigenous Peoples, hundreds of years ago, did not devastate nature the way we do today. Oceans are loaded with plastics and soil with dangerous contaminants. Now, is the air we breathe gradually destroying our brains?
A report published in Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences has grim news. We’ve known for decades that breathing in dirty air damages lungs. But research now reveals that long-term exposure to particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide is linked to decreased brain function.
The lungs are a vital gateway to the body. Their surface area is the size of a tennis court and during a 24-hour period we breathe in 10,000 liters of air.
The World Health Organization estimates that ambient air pollution results in over four million deaths per year worldwide. The causes include chronic obstructive lung disease, stroke and cardiovascular disease.
China, with its massive industrialization, is seeing significant health problems due to smog. Xin Zhang, a researcher at Beijing Normal University, says, “We speculate that air pollution probably puts greater damage on white matter in the brain, which is associated with language ability.”
Women will be pleased to know that studies show they have more white matter than males, suggesting men may suffer greater cognitive declines from damaging air pollution.
Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, notes that research on air pollution and brain health has intensified over the past decade. However, like Zhang, Samet indicates more research is needed to explain how small particles coat lungs, how they impact the brain, and how many other organs also suffer.
Dan Costa, an environmental toxicologist from the University of North Carolina, says that “when a toxic product enters the body, its implications are everywhere so it can also include the reproductive system.”
There is general agreement that inhaling small particles results in them entering the blood stream. There is every reason to suspect they cross the blood-brain barrier and set up an inflammatory reaction in the brain.
The fact that inflammation can cause either minor or serious health issues is nothing new. For years now, chronic inflammation has been linked to atherosclerosis (hardening of arteries) and coronary artery disease.
People in several East Asian countries have long worn face masks as a courtesy to others when they have a cold, but now, more frequently, in circumstances where there is a shocking amount of air pollution.
In 2017, the British journal, The Lancet, reported that people who lived adjacent to major highways had a slight increased risk of dementia.
Michael D. Mehta, professor of geography and environmental sciences at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, has been a pioneer in trying to change outdated opinions about the dangers of pollution. He warns of risks to fetal brain development stemming from prenatal air pollution exposure.
Today much of the research on pollution has focused on automobile emissions. But Mehta lives in British Columbia, where many rural families heat their homes burning wood in stoves and fireplaces. He cautions, “People who heat their homes with wood burning appliances have higher indoor air pollution levels,” adding that they put neighbours in harm’s way from these emissions that “generate significantly more particulate matter than dozens of diesel trucks and cars combined.” He wonders if wearing high quality respiratory masks to protect our health will become as common as sunglasses.
The Elder was right in the prophecy, “Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money.”
We are well along the slippery slope of destroying civilization.
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.