Pollution & Dementia

When 97% of climate change scientists agree that humankind is damaging the planet, it is time to listen. More importantly it is time to act. And, due to recent findings, we need to act now.

Last year an article grabbed my attention. The article was by Katie Forster and published in the Independent, 4th January, 2017. The claim in the article was that living near major roads can “increase the risk of dementia”, particularly when you live within fifty metres of a major road. This was from a study in Ontario, Canada. Having spent twenty-nine of my thirty years living by the side of one of my town’s major roads, I wanted to know more.

Because of the noise emitted from major roads sleep can often be fitful and it is proven that failure to reach R.E.M sleep (or prolonged R.E.M sleep) can lead to memory problems. After all, R.E.M sleep aids “memory consolidation” (the process by which we turn short-term memory into long-term memory) and also boosts capacity for problem-solving skills and aids creativity. So, while noise pollution was a factor in the rise of dementia, another factor was raised but shrugged away. That factor was whether emissions had anything to do with the increase in dementia.

That story in 2017 died down rather quickly and I had not heard much more about it, until a week ago. It was Tom Bawden’s article, written on behalf of the ‘i’ newspaper (28th August) which looked at new research that shows pollution is in fact a contributor to cognitive ability.

“Living in highly polluted areas over long periods of time could hit your verbal and mathematical abilities in later life”. This was the title of Bawden’s article and this time the study was undertaken in China, one of the world’s leading polluters. Lead author of the study Xin Zhang is quoted in the article as saying: “We find that long term exposure to air pollution impedes cognitive performance in verbal and maths tests. The effect of this air pollution becomes more pronounced as people age.”

Cities are by far more prone to the effects of carbon monoxide but the inhabitants see it as a price to pay in order to be surrounded by work and culture. But is it really a price worth paying? Schools in London are advised to keep children indoors during playtime when congestion and lack of circulatory weather patterns creates dense clouds of pollution. To put it into perspective of just how congested London’s air is, Bonnie Christian of Wired released a piece on 2nd February of this year that just one month into 2018 London reached and surpassed its legal pollution limit for the entire year. The title of the article – “How to breathe cleaner in London’s pollution-filled air” – highlights very well the mind-frame adopted by London’s inhabitants. I raised my eyebrows at this title. After all the only time people need a survival “how to” is when they are entering a hostile environment.

Emissions are the cause of “early deaths” – death that occurs before the average age of death in a certain population – “contributed to by PM2.5 (which is particulates in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres)”. In 2009 the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) put the deaths caused by PM2.5 as 29,000. In 2015 nitrogen dioxide was reported to have been responsible for 23,500 deaths according to Defra.

The information above is provided for their respective years. If these numbers of deaths are happening year on year it is clearly a problem of pandemic magnitude. Why is this not splashed on the front page of every newspaper? Why are there no emergency meetings being held in which the government divert sources and funding to help combat the toxification of the air we breathe?

The evidence proving that greenhouse gas emissions are getting worse is exponential. Satellite footage from NASA, NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) as well as research undertaken by scientists from all over the world have proven with myriad statistics that levels of nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and methane are on the rise. This is reflected by the rise in global temperatures, major depletion of Arctic ice as well as landlocked ice in Greenland.

Pollution poses a threat in our streets, but it does not stop there. Studies have also suggested that the level of C02 in the air is causing “key crops” to wield less nutrients. As many as “half a million Britons could become deficient in protein” as well as suffer from a depletion in sufficient levels in zinc. The study by Harvard University (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) states that “the populations of 18 countries may lose more than 5% of their dietary protein by 2050 due to a decline in nutritional value of rice, wheat, and other staple crops”.

Globally, 76% of the population derives most of their daily protein from plants. Zinc and protein are much needed throughout pregnancy, infancy and childhood in order for children to be able to properly develop both physically and mentally.

Pollution is seen as a distant nuisance. A wrong that will be righted by future generations. We believe, or choose to believe, that someone will come up with a new piece of technology that will clean the oceans. Another piece of technology that will bring back the trees and another that will clean the air. The truth is technologies exist but not on the scale that we need in order to see the vast degree of change needed.

The study from China is a game changer. It highlights the fact that pollution is no longer a layer thickening the atmosphere far above our heads and far from our conscious. Pollution is at street level and pressing up against our doors. Particulates stick in our lungs. Our children breathe them in on their ways to and from school and when they go outside in the playground. The eldest members of our society lose their mental faculties and slip away.

The question is: how are we going to deal with that danger at our door?

There is some good news on this front. Start-up company, Airlabs, has trialled pollution traps around bus stops in heavy-traffic areas which, according to Bonnie Christian’s article, filtered “97 percent of nitrogen-oxide from the air so commuters could breathe easy while waiting for the bus.” Christian’s article was one of the most informative in highlighting solutions to the pollution issus (link below). Christian mentions Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde designing and creating the solar-powered Smog Free Tower which has the “capacity to suck up 30,000 cubic metres of polluted air per hour, cleaning it at a nano-level and releasing the clean air back into the city.’ These are now being used in Tianjin, Dalian and Beijing as well as Rotterdam.

This is a great step in the right direction, but we need more initiatives. Pollution traps at every bus stop and street corner. Every city should introduce Smog Free Towers and aid in the cultivation of plant life. The problem is that, although these technologies are a fantastic move forward in combating air pollution, they are reactive. The very infrastructure that we use and rely on is fossil-fuel dependent. Be it the cars and buses that congest our streets or the container vessels chugging across our oceans, it would be a herculean undertaking to make the transition to green power, but not at all impossible. Naomi Klein in her bestselling book –This Changes Everything, makes a brilliant case of how the green energy movement would create a new global economy.

This kind of change needs to happen soon. Early deaths through respiratory illnesses and early onset dementia simply can no longer be justifiable when we have the potential for change at our feet.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/dementia-develop-living-near-major-main-road-study-mental-disorder-lancet-a7507616.html

https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/how-air-pollution-can-reduce-your-verbal-and-maths-skills/

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/london-pollution-toxic-levels-2018

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