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

The New-build Dilemma

It is official – houses are getting smaller.

Here are a few numbers from an article on the subject by Andrew Ellson and Jedidajah Otte in The Times, 20th August, 2018.

On average:

– Houses are now 20% smaller than in the 1970’s

– Living rooms are 1/3 smaller

– Kitchens are 1/4 smaller

– Bedrooms are 1/5 smaller

The road to purchasing a house is littered with potholes, diversions, dead-ends and dodgy signage. It took myself and my partner a year and a half to save up the deposit needed for a house in our area. And we only managed it because of the charity of my parents letting me live rent free in their house. If my partner and I had been renting, it would have taken us nearly three or four years to save for that deposit. That says a lot about our current culture.

New couples, new families and O.A.P’s looking to upgrade in their later years are buying new houses in new developments. Around Crawley and Horsham alone – where I am based – five new sectors are being added. Thousands of houses and apartments. All of them built smaller than the average residence, and – from myriad conversations I have had with labourers on site – with ever cheaper materials. For example: door frames built from compressed cardboard, plumbing constructed from PVC pipework, fake chimneys made from wood and rendered to look like brickwork. As well as plasterboard walls which would crumble if the PVC breaks or splits – after all PVC is far more brittle than copper and more susceptible to changes in pressure and atmospheric conditions.

New builds are not just smaller but also more expensive than the regular property and they are selling on the notion that, because they are modern, they have a longer lifespan than those built during earlier periods. No previous owners. No degradation. A new space to make a new home.

Space aside there is another issue facing those living in the new build houses and that is one of mental health. Statistically those living in smaller properties are more likely to develop mental health and social issues such as depression and anxiety. In cramped conditions, members of the family cannot get the time on their own that they need, as highlighted by Ben Derbyshire, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects who says that “In a two-bed, four person home there is no space to be on your own except in the lavatory. Humans are social animals but they also need peace, quiet and space for concentration.”

Higher property prices of new builds lead to financial anxieties due to buyers taking out larger mortgages. Combined with smaller living conditions leading to mental health problems the precedent being set by property developers is worrying.

Mental health and social issues after all lead to the most amount of work days missed and account for two of every five visits to G.P’s. The financial demand of the house combined with the house itself causing stress and worry would only create a false economy, would it not?

That is not to say that every new build is small, but with prices already high for smaller dwellings, the costs of larger properties are exponentially more and therefore fall into a price bracket that is often unachievable by those living on the average income. As commentator Tim Montgomerie says: “Inflated house prices owe much to the power of a few major builders to restrict the supply of new homes.” If someone wants to buy a house to call a home, they are at the whim of the prices dictated by developers. If you are a high-earner or in a high earning partnership and have enough money to buy a larger property, well, it turns out money really can buy you happiness.

The saleability of houses in regards to number of rooms is another contentious issue that we face in the United Kingdom. We are one of the only nations that sell properties based on the number of bedrooms that it has. In America and in much of Europe houses are sold on the basis of how many square metres are available. While people within the U.K might be happy in the knowledge that they have bought a three bedroom property, the space inside might not be appropriate for either the family unit, or to provide adequate separation space. After all, many properties advertised to have three bedrooms live up to the promise but space is massively lacking. What are sold as double bedrooms can at best fit a double bed and nothing else. I came across many of these houses when looking for the place we eventually called home.

As property developers squeeze as many houses into an acquired space as possible in order to maximise profits, the government is doing little in the way of putting regulations in place in order to set a decent living standard. Instead the “minimum size standards for new dwellings” as laid down by the government is entirely voluntary. This needs to change. The standards should become policy for all new developments not only for the benefit of the inhabitants but, as pointed out above, for the economy as a whole.

Architecture and proper civic planning can be, and has been, a tool for great change. By giving people space in which they can be part of the family unit and when needed to spend time by themselves. By focusing on creating public spaces in order to eradicate seclusion from one another and by bringing back community centres for children and social clubs for adults.

Due to the neoliberal dogma that the Conservative government subscribe to, projects such as this will simply not take hold. Maximising profits for companies and deregulating the market only weakens the government’s voice in matters of public discourse as corporate interest takes control. Prices will rise, houses will get incrementally smaller so that it is barely noticeable, and the effects on buyers will only be negative as a result.

Is this the way we want to go? Of course not. We need a government that will implement change and stamp policy into place to give people the place, and space, that they deserve.

The Age of Unreason – The Post Truth Era

“Britain has had enough of experts.”

You may remember that memorable line by Michael Gove in the interview with Faisal Islam on June 3rd, 2016. The quote was ricocheted throughout the media by journalists who simply could not believe what they were hearing.

I listened to the sound bite on the radio whilst at work. I was furious that someone who had chosen to go into politics, a career that demands expertise in myriad aspects of life (and we trust them to be experts in their fields) could say such a thing.

When I got home I pulled up the video on youtube and watched, and re-watched, the interview. That was the first time that I actually wondered if the country really would vote to leave the European Union. Twenty days later, the answer came.

With that crippling simple statement Michael Gove became one of the many people who helped propagate what is known as the Post-Truth movement. Post-truth politics – the rebuttal of facts by appealing to emotion – became a leading theme in western politics throughout 2016/17. In the case of Brexit, Ian Dunt wrote:

‘At the core of Britain’s current dilemma is a refusal to engage with objective fact. The debate about Brexit was lost, almost as soon as it began, in a tribal and emotional dogfight which bore little relation to reality.’

Brexit, What the Hell Happens Now?
Tagline: “For people who still believe in experts.”

Michael Gove’s statement had an incredibly negative effect and not just for Brexit. He made it acceptable to ignore truth.

This was a theme that ran on throughout the referendum campaign in the United Kingdom. Disinformation, or at the very least the shooing of information, became the spearhead pulling the campaign through that pesky cloud of facts. Aaron Banks, a man who put millions into the Leave campaign said: ‘Facts don’t work. You have to connect with the people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’

A blatant declaration and admission that facts were ignored, and that it was okay to ignore them. And this coming from one of the key figureheads of the Leave movement.

This is the kind of mind-frame that took the United Kingdom into one of the biggest crises to shake our foundations since the Second World War.

The leave campaign was driven with slogans to incense the people “Take back control” (from the European Union) “Don’t let them in” (regarding refugees) and then lies to clinch the deal such as: the European Union are the ones that allowed free passage of immigrants from outside the E.U into the country. This is a falsehood since the government had the power to increase border force and stem the flow of immigration whenever it chose to. The real problem facing the government here was that they were not prepared to admit that they had always had the power to implement change but had simply decided it was too expensive to go ahead. This would weaken the Conservative position which they had absolutely no intention of doing.

The worst lie uttered by the Leave campaign was one that played on the heartstrings of the majority of the U.K regarding one of its most cherished institutions – the National Health Service.

We all remember the giant sign plastered on the side of the red bus declaring that the £350 million we give to the European Union would be put back into the NHS. This was a deception of the highest magnitude and was ditched as soon as the Leave vote was cast.

The crucial thing to remember is that the people who voted Leave had some genuine concerns that were not being addressed by the government. The issue is that the Leave campaign latched onto these concerns and redirected the anger toward an outside force.

Across the Atlantic during the presidential campaign of 2016, the soon-to-be president Donald Trump rebutted economic strategy and plans for reforms from the democratic side with slander. The entire campaign instantly lost any level of authenticity. Unfortunately the already controversial candidate, Hilary Clinton, stooped to his level. The fight for the White House was a fiasco.

When Donald Trump gained power, Kellyanne Conway (counsellor to U.S President Donald Trump) gave the new government free reign to lie when she addressed the press regarding Sean Spicer’s blatant inaccuracies regarding the number of attendees to President Trump’s inauguration. During an interview on 22nd January, 2017 with Chuck Todd on NBC, Conway claimed that Sean Spicer had not lied but had instead used “alternative facts”.

Trump’s presidency was born in a cloud of misinformation.

Chuck Todd also recently interviewed ex-mayor of New York, Rudy Guiliani, who – when talking about Donald Trump’s meeting’s with Mike Comey – said that people have “different versions of the truth” and “the truth is not the truth”. The pollution of the truth is an ongoing tactic throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, something that he bolsters with the firing of anyone who questions his authority. This is a blatant disregard of a democratic process in which government officials are meant to be held accountable by the people and governing bodies.

Without a doubt the most useful tool in Donald Trump’s arsenal is the use of “Fake News”.

Used throughout his run for presidency and still used to this day, Trump throws “fake news” at any news station or journalist that does not bathe him in good light. The use of “Fake News” shakes peoples trust in what they read, what they hear and what they see so that, when the truth is told (whether it be in regards to his interactions with Stormy Daniels, the silencing of his ex-wife with huge payoff or possible collusion with Russia) it will only be lost in the fires of confusion constantly fed by the words of Trump and his associates.

The age of unreason is a new and devastating era. Post-truths, alternative facts, having had “enough of experts” – this is all intrinsically damning to our way of life.

Corroborative hard evidence is being met with opinion. Measurable facts met with blasé indifference. People are being told that it is okay to go on their gut instincts and throw facts to the wind.

What this does in reality, is give reason (or the illusion of reason) to the unreasonable. A stomping ground to anyone with a gripe who does not truly know where to point their anger.

It was most succinctly put my Matthew D’anconia in his book Post Truth, The New War on Truth and How to Fight It when he says in his introduction that he will “explore the declining value of truth as society’s reserve currency, and the infectious spread of pernicious relativism disguised as legitimate scepticism”.

This can be said for a number of views that have become widespread and accepted by some communities, for instance:

– Climate change denial in which 97% of climate scientists believe that the climate is changing due to human impact and yet Senator James Inhofe can bring a snowball into a senate committee to show to everyone that it is cold outside as if that was evidence that the entire planet is fine.

– Holocaust denial in which a small group of people believe that the systematic slaughter of Jewish people never happened despite countless pieces of evidence in the forms of written statements, prisoner names and numbers filed away in folders at death camps as well as actual video footage. Holocaust deniers put the evidence down to fabricated documents and actors.

– The Anti-vaccination movement in which people fight the science of modern medicine and believe that vaccinations cause autism whilst what it is really doing is making their children susceptible to disease.

– Flat earth theory

The crux of the issue does not just come down to people being fed false information, but people willing to believe false information that matches their own views. It is no secret that Donald Trump aimed his argument at the disgruntled white working class and told them their problems were because of Democratic party policy and, of course, foreigners. The same tactic was used throughout the campaign to leave the European Union. After all, it is easier to point the blame at an easy target when the problems are much deeper and run through our own governments and the way we handle businesses.

Arguments, conversations and campaigns should take place, after all they help our society progress and evolve. But they need to be backed with truth. After all, if we do not have truth, we live in a society in freefall.