A Carbon Footprint on the Brain

August 25th, 2012
in Op Ed, syndication

Written by Michael Kulla

Man's "carbon footprint" is about more than just climate change with havoc wrought by erratic weather patterns, low-land flooding, etc. Along with the greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels come a host of other pollutants which pose immediate hazards to the populations exposed.

The yellow haze of smog hovering over the skyline isn't just a stain on our view. It leaves a mark on our minds. Researchers are identifying surprising connections between man made air pollution and decreased cognition and well-being.

Follow up:

Every Breath You Take

Researchers have known since the 1970's that high level air pollution can harm both cardiovascular and respiratory health, risking early death from heart and lung diseases. Effects of air pollution on cognitive and mental well being has been less understood, but the evidence is mounting.

For years we have been at the mercy of the energy industry climate disvowers who play on doubts and uncertainties. They range from outright deniers, to skeptics, to blaming it on the sun, volcanoes, water vapor, God and more. Some of the more zealous adherents claim it to be a giant lie perpetrated by climate scientists (97 to 98% believers) and Democrats. It has never been adequately explained however why these scientists are willing to sell their souls to the devil. Meanwhile the planet is being transformed as we idly sit by.

Most research has focused on a type of pollutant known as fine particulate matter. These tiny particles -- 1/30th the width of human hair -- are spewed by power plants, factories, cars and trucks. One study involving over 19,000 older women across the U.S., ages 70-81, who had been exposed to high levels of pollutants, experienced significantly worsened cognitive decline.

These results square with a recent Harvard School of Public Health study linking black carbon -- a type of particulate matter associated with diesel exhaust -- and cognition in 680 older men in Boston. These men, like the previous study, found that with exposure to high levels of black carbon, cognitive performance was markedly reduced compared to men who had less carbon exposure.

Many dementias are often preceded by a long period of cognitive decline. It's too soon to say that a carbon footprint is what's causing cognitive decline. Still, the cumulative results of these and other studies smuggest that air pollution deserves scrutiny as a risk factor for cognitive impairment and perhaps dementia.

Young Minds

Research is also finding cognitive harm to children. A Boston University study of over 200 Boston kids from birth to an average age of 10 found those exposed to greater levels of black carbon scored worse on memory and verbal and non verbal IQ tests. More recently, children followed in NYC from birth to 6 or 7 were more likely to experience attention problems, anxiety and depression. Another study in an industrial polluted area showed lower attendance rates and lower percentage of students who failed to meet state testing standards.

Pollution problems in the U.S. pale in comparison to those in Mexico City. For instance, kids living there were much more likely to have brain inflammation and damaged tissue in the pre-frontal cortex, a key factor in many central nervous disorders, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

These changes, some of them elaborated here, are considered surprising and alarming by many researchers, that they would find actual changes in brain structure.

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency reviews the scientific basis for particular matter standards every five years or so. It completed its last review in 2009.

In the meantime,there's not much people can do to protect themselves, short of wearing special masks, installing special filtration systems in their homes and offices or moving to places with less carbon pollution -- not Mexico City or Beijing where pollution is very high. Ultimately, we're at the mercy off policy.

The good news is that mental and cognitive effects of air pollution are finally beginning to receive attention from the mental health research community. The bad news is that we continue to diddle while environmental insults go on and get worse. We need to not shrink from it.


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More by Michael Zulla.

michael-kulla-125x140About the Author

Michael Kulla is from Pleasant Valley, NY and is a New York State licensed psychologist.

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