One risk that we are all equally exposed to regardless of health, social or economic status is that of air pollution.
After all, we don’t have much of a choice other than inhaling and exhaling the air that surrounds us.
Thing is, the machines that serve as the backbone of our industry (as well as that of the economy) and the legislation that governments craft significantly impact that same air we breathe.
Air pollution is a byproduct of economic development. And the price of progress is steep.
Cars, buses, trains, and planes fill the air up with the destructive byproducts of fossil fuels. Factories and power plants do the same as they lay waste to air quality with the pollutants they release. Deforestation is the norm for governments seeking more living space, which has taken a toll on air quality.
This is a global problem of massive proportions, to say the least – and the toll that air pollution takes on the body can be terrifying.
See, poor air quality doesn’t end with making the air harder to breathe. There are far more sinister implications that air pollution can do to us.
It doesn’t matter where you live, or where you’re from – we’re all equally impacted by the devastating effect of air pollution on the body, and evidence is growing for its effect on cognitive development.
The 6 Major Air Pollutants
According to the EPA, the six major culprits of global air pollution are the following:
- Ground-level ozone
- Nitrogen dioxide
- Sulfur dioxide
- Carbon monoxide
- Particulate matter
These pollutants can be found in abundant concentrations in the air you breathe, regardless of where you are located. The concentration of these pollutants, as well as the length of exposure to them over time, will determine how much your health will be affected.
These gases and particles are carried by the cells that line your airways to your lungs, which metabolizes them. Henceforth, they can be delivered to your internal organs via your bloodstream, which can have far-ranging consequences, as we will soon find out.
Granted, larger particles in the air are filtered out by the cilia that line your respiratory tract. However, smaller particles of ambient particulate matter reach your lungs. Particulate matter also negatively impacts farms as well as water sources, which are eventually consumed by humans as well as livestock.
The Impact of Air Pollution on Health
Air pollution comes in various forms. It can be the black fumes ejected by a factory, or the smog that perniciously envelops cities in a grey cloud. It can be invisible, too – a silent killer of global proportions (over 4 million deaths each year).
Air pollution is responsible for causing the following illnesses, all of which contribute to premature deaths and hospital visits:
- Ischemic heart disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Lung cancer
- Respiratory infections
Poor air quality does more than just significantly increase the risk of premature death from the aforementioned illnesses commonly associated with air pollution – it also impacts the following aspects of human health as follows:
- Reduced lung function, asthma, and susceptibility to infections. Children and adults exposed to air pollution for any amount of time are at risk to a host of lung-related problems, such as asthma and respiratory tract infections.
- Low birth weight and/or premature births. Ambient air pollution adversely affects pregnant women, leading to adverse birthing outcomes.
- Neurological impairment and diabetes in children. Recent research has suggested that children exposed to ambient air pollution increase the risk of neurological impairment, as well as a risk of diabetes.
- Cognitive decline in older adults. Studies have shown that adults exposed to air pollution are predisposed to cognitive decline, as well as an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
It doesn’t end there. The exact toll of deaths and disability stemming from the conditions mentioned above aren’t even quantified yet in current estimates. But as research continues and as evidence is obtained, the burden of harm and illness that air pollution causes are only expected to further increase in the coming years.
As we shall soon discuss, some of them are just coming to light in recent years – such as the cognitive and neurological harm that air pollution cumulatively impacts over time.
The Cognitive Effects of Air Pollution
Recent studies suggest that smog is bad for the brain, even if researchers aren’t exactly certain why.
According to an August 2018 study, long-term exposure to air pollutants led to a cognitive decline in adults as they aged, especially in the case of men with lesser educational achievement. Said adults were discovered to have low scores on verbal and math tests.
That said, public health officials, as well as the academe, continue to work on discerning how air pollutants impact the brain.
It is speculated that air pollution possibly impacts white brain matter. White matter is the tissue wherein messages pass through grey matter in the central nervous system, associated with language capability.
Greater Risk for Depressive Disorders in Children and Teens
The same study also indicated that children exposed to higher concentrations of air pollution at the age of 12 are subject to a three to four-fold risk of developing depression at age 18. Children living in highly polluted areas face a significantly higher risk.
Further research is required, but air pollution seems to have a greater impact than physical abuse does in increasing the risk of teenage depression.
Worse Performance on Academic Tests
Indoor air quality affects children’s performance in academic test scores. Schoolchildren who are victims of poor air quality are more likely to require academic help in one way or another.
Studies indicated that reduced pollution levels in schools located in lower-income areas raised test scores in a small yet meaningful way. A significant increase in test performance was attributed to improved indoor air quality in schools.
Air purifying systems have proven to reduce the harmful consequences, but we have to realize this is just symptomatic treatment. Not a solution to the real problem.
One of the more alarming effects of air pollution on cognitive function is that it was found to have caused a significant decrease in education – to the tune of losing one year of education. That’s a huge impact that was hitherto little-studied. According to the same study, the effect is amplified in the case of older adults, whose impact was equivalent to losing several years of education. The worst part? No one is spared from this effect, since air pollution is the same in London as it is in Islamabad or Kinshasa, for that matter.
Urgent action and cooperation are therefore of paramount importance for governments and non-governmental organizations the world over. Furthermore, as Green Energy Notes indicates, a paradigm shift needs to happen to address these issues, one of which is the shift towards renewable energy sources like solar power. It’s never too late.