Environmental Pollution Linked to Serious Neurological Illness

Environmental Pollution Linked to Serious Neurological Illness

The relationship between pollution and health is well-established. We know that exposure to higher levels results in worse health outcomes by almost any measure. New research, however, is showing that we may not know all the ways pollution is making us sick.

Despite major technological strides over the past few decades, pollution—driven by emissions from power plants, industry and cars—remains a serious issue in most major cities.

The relationship between pollution and health is well-established. We know that exposure to higher levels results in worse health outcomes by almost any measure. New research, however, is showing that we may not know all the ways pollution is making us sick.

A recent study has found that pollution can cause serious neurological illness—including brain cancer—and it just may change how cities think about transit.

How Pollution May Cause Brain Cancer

The study, published in the journal Epidemiology, found that exposure to nanoparticles released by exhaust from motor traffic can lead to an increased risk of brain cancer. A one-year increase in exposure to pollution can increase a person's risk for brain cancer by up to 10 percent.

While the study was the first to establish a relationship between car exhaust and brain cancer, it wasn't the first to find a correlation between pollution and serious neurological illness.

Another study, published earlier this year, found that air pollution was linked to higher rates of serious neurological illnesses, like depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The study was based on health information from the United States but reinforced several other studies that had been conducted around the globe in places like London, China and South Korea.

The exact reason why pollution may cause neurological illness is unknown, but it may be a knock-on effect from its other negative health impacts. A global review of the relationship between health and pollution found that exposure to high levels reduced the effectiveness of sleep and exercise. Both physical activity and healthy amounts of sleep are believed to improve mental health and protect people from neurological illness, like depression and bipolar disorder.

Neurologists are increasingly concerned about the impact of pollution on the brain and mental health. In the future, more studies in a similar vein will likely be conducted, improving our understanding of the different ways in which pollution may be harming our brains.

How Cities Can Respond
While pollution levels remain high in the United States, they have been decreasing over the past decades, both in America and in most developed nations. By fine air particulate matter—the kind found to correlate with brain cancer—the United States ranks 10th in the world in air quality. It's beaten only by a handful of countries—like New Zealand, Canada and some EU nations—which have made serious strides in environmental policy.

The majority of the world's most polluted cities are abroad, in China and India. Both these countries are experiencing massive growth in car ownership—an encouraging sign of economic growth, but bad for public health. 

Both developing and wealthy nations may come to reframe transit as a public health issue. Several studies have already found that public transit systems, like light rail, can lead to better health outcomes for those living in the surrounding areas. 

Better knowledge about the relationship between pollution and illness may result in bigger pushes for electric vehicles and the infrastructure needed to support them—especially EV charging stations. This new knowledge may also lead cities to look to electrified public transit systems that could help reduce the number of cars on the road and the amount of pollution they produce.

Other cities may follow the lead of Paris, Milan and Madrid, and ban cars outright from certain population-dense areas or on specific days of the month.

For now, if you're worried about the effects of pollution on your health, your best bet is to avoid exercising near busy or polluted streets. You can also avoid contributing to pollution by reducing the amount of time you travel by car, or by switching to an electric vehicle.

Protecting Our Health from Pollution

Pollution remains a major problem around the world, and while we know it's harming our health, new research is demonstrating just how bad the effects may be. 

Scientists, neurologists and health professionals are becoming more likely to consider pollution a public health crisis. In the future, cities will need to respond to pollution if they want to remain sustainable and livable. Some possible solutions include better public transit, investment in electric vehicle infrastructure and even the outright banning of cars.