Air pollution is a known killer. It can lead to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, respiratory infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to recent data from the World Health Organization, 7 million premature deaths around the globe every year are linked to dirty air.
But now there is mounting evidence that certain types of air pollution can also be bad for your brain. New research shows that exposure to even relatively low concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) can significantly impair cognitive functioning.
The study examined the cognitive scores of 780 participants, 55 years and older and gathered data on PM2.5 air pollution levels for each participant’s neighborhood based on measurements taken by the U.S. EPA’s Air Quality System. People living in high pollution areas, with 15 micrograms per cubic meter or more of PM2.5 had error scores on their cognitive tests of arithmetic and memory one and a half times those of the participants who lived in low pollution areas with no more than 5 micrograms per cubic meter. The difference remained even after the researchers adjusted for confounding variables like education, employment, gender, and marital status.
PM2.5 pollution is released during any combustion process. The most common sources are vehicle exhaust and coal-fired power plants. The particles are just 1/30 the width of a human hair, small enough, researchers believe, to cross into the bloodstream.
This is not the first time that air pollution has been linked with lowered cognitive functioning. In 2012, Jennifer Weuve, at Harvard’s Rush University Medical Center, published similar results. Her study examined the cognitive functioning of 19,000 U.S. women between the ages of 70 and 81 and their short and long-term exposure to particulate air pollution.
Weuve showed that higher levels of long-term exposure to both coarse and fine particulate matter are associated with significantly faster cognitive decline. The researchers estimated that a 10-microgram per cubic meter increase in long-term PM exposure was cognitively equivalent to aging by approximately two years.
President Obama has made a point of highlighting the positive health impacts of the EPA’s proposed new carbon regulations. In his weekly radio address, right before the rules were announced,the president said the move would result in up to 100,000 fewer asthma attacks and 2,100 fewer heart attacks in its first year alone.
“We don’t have to choose between the health of our economy and the health of our children,” Obama said. “As president, and as a parent, I refuse to condemn our children to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”
The EPA estimates that the public health benefits of the proposed rule will add up to $55 billion to $93 billion by 2030 as the health care system is relieved of the disease burden imposed by air pollution.