Getting stuck in traffic causes a lot of stress, which is bad for mental health. It turns out, the health impact could be a lot deeper.
We already know that there is a link between long term exposure to tailpipe emissions and higher rates of heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illness. But several studies, compiled in a Wall Street Journal article, have begun to show that high level exposure to car exhaust can also affect brain development. The exact impact is still not entirely certain, but research from separate teams in New York, Boston, Beijing, and Krakow, Poland shows a startling link:
Children in areas affected by high levels of emissions, on average, scored more poorly on intelligence tests and were more prone to depression, anxiety and attention problems than children growing up in cleaner air, separate research teams in New York, Boston, Beijing, and Krakow, Poland, found. And older men and women long exposed to higher levels of traffic-related particles and ozone had memory and reasoning problems that effectively added five years to their mental age, other university researchers in Boston reported this year. The emissions may also heighten the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and speed the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
Not only are intelligence levels and mental health at risk, but a child’s chance of developing autism goes up markedly if his mother lives in a highly polluted area, according to research from the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives. Dr. Volk, a medical epidemiologist at University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, and her colleagues calculated that:
Children born to mothers living within 1,000 feet of a major road or freeway in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Sacramento were twice as likely to have autism, independent of gender, ethnicity and education level, as well as maternal age, exposure to tobacco smoke or other factors.
The science is beginning to show that a mother’s exposure to pollution will determine the prenatal development of her child:
Older men and women long exposed to higher levels of traffic-related particles and ozone had memory and reasoning problems that effectively added five years to their mental age. The emissions may also heighten the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and speed the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
More research needs to be done to better prove the link. But so far, the science reconfirms what we already know: toxic air pollution from our automobile-based society has enormous consequences for our public health and economy.
— Cole Mellino is an intern with the energy team at the Center for American Progress