How Air Pollution Can Harm Brain Health

It has long been rather stunning to me how careless many people are about air pollution. One of the most important things that people shouldn’t do is drive with their windows down in areas with significant traffic (and thus significant amounts of air pollution from vehicles). The motive for caring is rather simple — air pollution’s negative impact on brain health means possibly reduced performance on a variety of tasks, and that can negatively correlate with achieving life goals, which in turn is detrimental to human happiness and satisfaction.

Long thought to primarily harm the lungs and cardiovascular system, air pollution is now catching the attention of neuroscientists and toxicologists.

The buzz of a leaf blower and its gaseous fumes fill the air outside a lab facility at the University of Washington in Seattle. Inside the building, neurotoxicologist Lucio Costa is investigating how polluted air—such as garden tool exhaust—could be bad for the brain.

Next to the building sits a 5,500-watt diesel generator, enclosed in a metal box. Pipes carry the diesel exhaust—the same stuff emitted by diesel engines in vehicles and heavy equipment—into the facility, across an exposed ceiling and into a room where plastic cages of mice are stacked high against the wall. Tubes filter the diesel exhaust through the cages, Costa explains, in an effort to mimic the contaminated air you might breathe while sitting in traffic or living near a busy road.

After spending most of his career studying mercury, pesticides, and flame retardants, Costa knows well that many toxins in the environment can hurt the brain. But only in the last several years has the possibility of air pollution as a culprit crossed his mind. A growing body of literature on the topic inspired him to begin research in this diesel lab. “For a long time, I thought that air pollution was affecting mostly the lungs and the cardiovascular system and not the brain,” says Costa. “So I stayed away from any issue related to air pollution.”

Now, mounting evidence seems to link a variety of neurological problems to dirty air. Troubling recent findings include hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease found in the brains of children living in Mexico City (1) and a nearly doubled risk of dementias for older women in highly polluted parts of the United States (2). Costa’s own research has identified autism-like social and behavioral issues in mice exposed to diesel exhaust (3). Today, Costa is among a growing cadre of biologists, toxicologists, and doctors raising the alarm over this pervasive yet overlooked menace to our memory, attention, and behavior.

A Global Threat

Although the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and associated “shelter in place” policies have reduced fossil fuel use to offer a temporary respite from extreme pollution in some places, most countries face an ongoing epidemic of dirty air as a result of growing urban congestion and an uptick in climate-driven wildfires, among other factors. Indoor air pollution further plagues many of the world’s poorest communities. Around 3 billion people cook indoors over open fires or stoves fueled by wood, biomass, kerosene, or coal. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified air pollution as the second-largest risk factor for noncommunicable disease worldwide. And the WHO’s stats don’t include the full range of neurological effects now being discovered, notes neurotoxicologist Deborah Cory-Slechta at the University of Rochester in New York.

Globally, more than 90 percent of people breathe air that fails to meet WHO standards. That includes an estimated four in 10 people in the United States, although efforts such as the US Clean Air Act and its amendments of 1990 have helped. Between 2000 and 2016, the average concentration of particulate matter (PM) with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), tiny particles produced by combustion, fell by around 40 percent in the United States. But the country’s overall air quality has worsened since 2016. Partly to blame is a rise in wildfire smoke, which is now responsible for an estimated 40 percent of particulate matter pollution.

Yet cleaner, healthier air remains achievable, notes Dean Schraufnagel, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There are no death certificates that say air pollution exposure,” he says. “But we know that air pollution affects every organ in the body. If we stop the air pollution at its source, we can get strikingly important health benefits.”

Schraufnagel, also the director of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies, points to one easy target: idling diesel-powered school buses. A 2019 study out of Georgia in the United States found that districts that retrofitted school buses to reduce diesel emissions reported significant increases in students’ English test scores as well as smaller improvements in math (4).

The havoc air pollution can wreak on the brain is also a new area of interest for Schraufnagel, whose research and clinical practice has long focused on lung disease. Today, he is working with international organizations to get air pollution on the minds of not just pulmonologists but also neurologists and other medical experts. “This should be a call to action,” adds Schraufnagel.

Air pollution is a cocktail of suspended gases, solids, and liquid particles. While this mix contains numerous hazardous ingredients, such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide, the component that appears most concerning for the brain is PM.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates PM10 and PM2.5, defined as particles less than 10 and 2.5 micrometers in diameter, respectively. PM2.5, also known as fine particulate matter, generally comes from smoke, dust, and vehicle exhaust. Because PM2.5 is so tiny—30 times smaller than the width of the average human hair—it can remain airborne for long periods of time, infiltrate buildings, and penetrate the body. Ultrafine particles, which measure less than 0.1 micrometer across, may be even worse offenders. Yet the miniscule mass of these particles makes them difficult to monitor. They remain unregulated by the EPA.

Fine and ultrafine particulate matter tends to circumvent the mechanisms that the human body has evolved to deflect, detain, and destroy unwelcome visitors. “The health effects of air pollution are all about particle size,” says Cory-Slechta. Studies suggest that these tiny particles can even go up the nose and be carried straight to the brain via the olfactory nerve (5)—hence bypassing the blood–brain barrier. And they don’t travel alone. On their surfaces these particles carry contaminants, from dioxins and other chemical compounds to metals such as iron and lead. “PM is simply acting as a vector,” says Masashi Kitazawa, a molecular neuropathologist at the University of California, Irvine. “It might be a number of chemicals that get into the brain and act in different ways to cause damage.”

Because of their large surface area relative to their volume, the smallest particles are the biggest offenders. Cory-Slechta’s research has largely focused on lead and mercury, neurotoxic metals that are abundant in air pollution. “Ultrafine particles are like little Trojan horses,” she says. “Pretty much every metal known to humans is on these.”

Metal-toting particles that reach the brain can directly damage neurons. Both the particles themselves and their toxic hitchhikers can also cause widespread harm by dysregulating the activation of microglia, the immune cells in the brain. Microglia may mistake the intruders for pathogens, releasing chemicals to try to kill them. Those chemicals can accumulate and trigger inflammation. And chronic inflammation in the brain has been implicated in neurodegeneration (6).

Particles may also afflict the brain via the bloodstream. Research shows that small particles can slip through the plasma membrane of alveoli—the tiny air sacs in the lungs—and get picked up by capillaries. The particles are then distributed around the body in the blood. Although some of these particles may eventually breach the blood–brain barrier, a pollutant need not enter the brain to cause trouble there. The immune system can react to particles in the lung or bloodstream, too, triggering widespread inflammation that affects the brain.

Even an ingested particle could have indirect neurological effects, via the gut. Researchers now recognize strong connections between the gut microbiome and the brain (7), and studies show that delivering fine particles to the gut can cause systemic inflammation (8).

In January 2010, Cory-Slechta received a surprising request from some University of Rochester environmental medicine colleagues. Typically, the group researched the effects of air pollution on the lungs and hearts of adult animals. But they had just exposed a group of newborn mice and asked Cory-Slechta’s team to look at the brains.

At first she didn’t think much of the request. Cory-Slechta was much more concerned about deadly lead exposure in children, her research focus at the time. “I didn’t think of air pollution as a big problem for the brain,” she says. Then she examined the animals’ tissue. “It was eye-opening. I couldn’t find a brain region that didn’t have some kind of inflammation.”

Her team followed up with their own studies. In addition to inflammation, they saw classic behavioral and biochemical features of autism, attention-deficit disorder, and schizophrenia in mice exposed to pollutants during the first days after birth. The mouse brains had noticeably less white matter, particularly in the corpus callosum connecting the right and left cerebral hemispheres. In work published last November, Cory-Slechta’s group further linked short-term exposures to air pollution with impaired learning and memory in aged mice, based on measures of spontaneous movement, navigation of a maze, short-term object recognition, and the ability to discriminate odors (9). The concentrations of particulate matter used, she notes, “easily include sitting in traffic in major cities.”

[…]

Research in Ontario, Canada, found that living farther away from a major road lowered the risk of developing dementia (13). A study of nearly 3,000 Barcelona schoolchildren found that those attending schools with more traffic pollution had slower cognitive development (14). And in the United States, a study found that living in locations where ambient particulate matter exceeded EPA recommendations nearly doubled women’s risk of developing dementia. When those researchers looked specifically at older women with two copies of the APOE4 gene variant, a strong genetic factor for Alzheimer’s disease, the dementia risk associated with living in those locations jumped almost threefold (2).

U.S. Drinking Water Contamination Far Worse Than Previously Thought

Dark humor comedian George Carlin liked to say that he didn’t consider himself a good American if he didn’t let his food and water poison himself a bit every day. For real though, if you want at least some defense against the contamination, the people in the know recommend robust water filtration systems.

America is great again! Keep this version of America great 2020, don’t change it! Only over a hundred million people there drink contaminated water every day!

The contamination of US drinking water with manmade “forever chemicals” is far worse than previously estimated with some of the highest levels found in Miami, Philadelphia and New Orleans, said a report on Wednesday by an environmental watchdog group.

The chemicals, resistant to breaking down in the environment, are known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Some have been linked to cancers, liver damage, low birth weight and other health problems.

The findings here by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) show the group’s previous estimate in 2018, based on unpublished US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, that 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS, could be far too low.

“It’s nearly impossible to avoid contaminated drinking water from these chemicals,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG and co-author of the report.

The chemicals were used in products like Teflon and Scotchguard and in firefighting foam. Some are used in a variety of other products and industrial processes, and their replacements also pose risks.

Of tap water samples taken by EWG from 44 sites in 31 states and Washington DC, only one location, Meridian, Mississippi, which relies on 700ft (215m) deep wells, had no detectable PFAS. Only Seattle and Tuscaloosa, Alabama had levels below 1 part per trillion (PPT), the limit EWG recommends.

In addition, EWG found that on average six to seven PFAS compounds were found at the tested sites, and the effects on health of the mixtures are little understood. “Everyone’s really exposed to a toxic soup of these PFAS chemicals,” Andrews said.

In 34 places where EWG’s tests found PFAS, contamination had not been publicly reported by the EPA or state environmental agencies.

The EPA has known since at least 2001 about the problem of PFAS in drinking water but has so far failed to set an enforceable, nationwide legal limit. The EPA said early last year it would begin the process to set limits on two of the chemicals, PFOA and PFOS.

The EPA said it has helped states and communities address PFAS and that it is working to put limits on the two main chemicals but did not give a timeline.

In 2018 a draft report from an office of the US Department of Health and Human Services said the risk level for exposure to the chemicals should be up to 10 times lower than the 70 PPT threshold the EPA recommends. The White House and the EPA had tried to stop the report from being published.

How Toxic Chemicals Are Robbing Vulnerable Children of Millions of IQ Points

The crisis of contaminated water seen in Flint, Michigan is ongoing and terrible, but other related events of contamination are more common than people tend to think they are. America is a society with many protections for the most powerful, and not enough for the most vulnerable.

The chemicals we’ve long feared the most – heavy metals like lead and mercury – are less of a threat to kids’ developing brains than they were two decades ago. But two new menaces may be taking their place: pesticides and flame retardants.

According to new research from New York University, flame retardants resulted in a loss of 162 million IQ points among children in the US between 2001 and 2016.

The study, published Tuesday in the journal Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, looked at the four chemicals known to impact the brain of a developing child most: lead, mercury, pesticides, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (otherwise known as flame retardants).

Leo Trasande, a paediatrician and public-health researcher at NYU who co-authored the study, described these pollutants as “hit-and-run” chemicals: Once a child is exposed to them, there’s no reversing the damage.

“Kids’ brain development is exquisitely vulnerable,” Trasande told Business Insider. “If you disrupt, even with subtle effects, the way a child’s brain is wired, you can have permanent and lifelong consequences.”

The study found that lead cost US kids 78 million IQ points during the 15-year period studied, while pesticides caused a loss of nearly 27 million IQ points during those years. Mercury, meanwhile, caused a loss of 2.5 million IQ points.

Children’s’ lower IQs are costing the US trillions of dollars

The researchers found that among kids exposed to toxins from 2001 to to 2016, the proportion of IQ loss due to exposure to flame retardants and pesticides increased from 67 percent to 81 percent. Flame retardants can be found in household furniture and electronics, while pesticides can be consumed when they linger on produce.

“What we found was quite striking,” Trasande said.

“We know that there is no safe level of lead exposure. The same is true for methylmercury, pesticides, and flame retardants.”

The study also found that there is an economic cost to childhood brain damage: Trasande said that each individual IQ point is worth roughly 2 percent of a child’s lifetime economic productivity. So if a child could potentially make US$1 million over the course of their lifetime, they would lose US$20,000 for every IQ point lost.

“A kid’s brain power is the engine of our economy,” Trasande said.

“If a child comes back from school with one less IQ point, maybe mum or the parent might not notice. But if 100,000 children come back with one less IQ point, the entire economy notices.”

According to the researchers, IQ loss due to lead, mercury, flame retardants, and pesticide exposure combined cost the US around US$6 trillion from 2001 to 2016.

Regulations on flame retardants and pesticides are more lax than heavy metals

For decades, scientists have understood that exposure to lead and mercury can result in childhood brain damage. So many of the main hideouts for these chemicals – leaded gasoline, lead paint, and mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants – have been phased out.

As early as the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency required lead to be phased out of gasoline and paint (though lead paint can still be found in homes built before 1978).

The agency also set standards to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants in 2011, though some power plants still do not meet these requirements.

But there have been fewer efforts to regulate pesticides and flame retardants.

The EPA has banned around 37 pesticides, though more than 500 have been used in the US. Another 97 have been voluntarily withdrawn by pesticide manufacturers.

More than a dozen states have adopted legislation that restricts the use of flame retardants in products like furniture, carpeting, and children’s toys, but none of the chemicals are banned federally.

Ways to reduce kids’ exposure

Many factors can influence a kid’s exposure to a chemical, Transande said.

“The science has really evolved such that the dose is not the only thing that makes the poison,” he said. Other factors to consider could include the timing and frequency of exposure.

Trasande added that regulating all of these chemicals has a far lower long-term economic cost than the cost of kids’ lost IQ points due to exposure.

To minimise personal risk in one’s own home, Trasande suggested simple steps like opening windows so that dust laced with flame retardants can escape. He also suggested vacuuming frequently and using a wet mop to sop up chemicals on the floor.

In addition, parents should avoid mattresses and children’s toys that contain polyurethane foam (which often carries flame retardants).

Trasande also said households should avoid spraying pesticides on their lawns or backyards and recommended switching to organic foods (though organic produce can also contain pesticides).

“We’ve made less progress in phasing out or banning some of the pesticides of greatest concern,” Trasande said. “But there are steps we can take proactively as consumers.”

Major Benefits of Reducing Air Pollution

Air pollution has for many years been a major public health problem that doesn’t receive much attention despite its significant effects on the population. It has been estimated that the majority of people in the world are regularly breathing unclean air.

Reductions in air pollution yielded fast and dramatic impacts on health-outcomes, as well as decreases in all-cause morbidity, according to findings in “Health Benefits of Air Pollution Reduction,” new research published in the American Thoracic Society’s journal, Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

The study by the Environmental Committee of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS) reviewed interventions that have reduced air pollution at its source. It looked for outcomes and time to achieve those outcomes in several settings, finding that the improvements in health were striking. Starting at week one of a ban on smoking in Ireland, for example, there was a 13 percent drop in all-cause mortality, a 26 percent reduction in ischemic heart disease, a 32 percent reduction in stroke, and a 38 percent reduction in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Interestingly, the greatest benefits in that case occurred among non-smokers.

“We knew there were benefits from pollution control, but the magnitude and relatively short time duration to accomplish them were impressive,” said lead author of the report, Dean Schraufnagel, MD, ATSF. “Our findings indicate almost immediate and substantial effects on health outcomes followed reduced exposure to air pollution. It’s critical that governments adopt and enforce WHO guidelines for air pollution immediately.”

In the United States, a 13-month closure of a steel mill in Utah resulted in reducing hospitalizations for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis and asthma by half. School absenteeism decreased by 40 percent, and daily mortality fell by 16 percent for every 100 ?g/m3 PM10 (a pollutant) decrease. Women who were pregnant during the mill closing were less likely to have premature births.

A 17-day “transportation strategy,” in Atlanta, Georgia during the 1996 Olympic Games involved closing parts of the city to help athletes make it to their events on time, but also greatly decreased air pollution. In the following four weeks, children’s visits for asthma to clinics dropped by more than 40 percent and trips to emergency departments by 11 percent. Hospitalizations for asthma decreased by 19 percent. Similarly, when China imposed factory and travel restrictions for the Beijing Olympics, lung function improved within two months, with fewer asthma-related physician visits and less cardiovascular mortality.

In addition to city-wide polices, reducing air pollution within the home also led to health benefits. In Nigeria, families who had clean cook stoves that reduced indoor air pollution during a nine-month pregnancy term saw higher birthweights, greater gestational age at delivery, and less perinatal mortality.

The report also examines the impact of environmental policies economically. It highlights that 25 years after enactment of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. EPA estimated that the health benefits exceeded the cost by 32:1, saving 2 trillion dollars, and has been heralded as one of the most effective public health policies of all time in the United States. Emissions of the major pollutants (particulate matter [PM], sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and lead) were reduced by 73 percent between 1990 and 2015 while the U.S. gross domestic product grew by more than 250 percent.

Given these findings, Dr. Schraufnagel has hope. “Air pollution is largely an avoidable health risk that affects everyone. Urban growth, expanding industrialization, global warming, and new knowledge of the harm of air pollution raise the degree of urgency for pollution control and stress the consequences of inaction,” he says. “Fortunately, reducing air pollution can result in prompt and substantial health gains. Sweeping policies affecting a whole country can reduce all-cause mortality within weeks. Local programs, such as reducing traffic, have also promptly improved many health measures.”

Worse Air Pollution Found to Decrease Happiness Levels

Another reason that the world should convert to renewable, clean sources of power in the fight against climate change. Happiness is one of the most important things in life, and therefore it’d be good if the world’s political systems better prioritized the general happiness of people instead of largely prioritizing big business profits.

Now researchers at MIT have discovered that air pollution in China’s cities may be contributing to low levels of happiness amongst the country’s urban population.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, a research team led by Siqi Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate, and the Faculty Director of MIT China Future City Lab, reveals that higher levels of pollution are associated with a decrease in people’s happiness levels.

The paper also includes co-first author Jianghao Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Matthew Kahn of the University of Southern California, Cong Sun of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and Xiaonan Zhang of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Despite an annual economic growth rate of 8 percent, satisfaction levels amongst China’s urban population have not risen as much as would be expected.

Alongside inadequate public services, soaring house prices, and concerns over food safety, air pollution — caused by the country’s industrialization, coal burning, and increasing use of cars — has had a significant impact on quality of life in urban areas.

Research has previously shown that air pollution is damaging to health, cognitive performance, labor productivity, and educational outcomes. But air pollution also has a broader impact on people’s social lives and behavior, according to Zheng.

To avoid high levels of air pollution, for example, people may move to cleaner cities or green buildings, buy protective equipment such as face masks and air purifiers, and spend less time outdoors.

“Pollution also has an emotional cost,” Zheng says. “People are unhappy, and that means they may make irrational decisions.”

On polluted days, people have been shown to be more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behavior that they may later regret, possibly as a result of short-term depression and anxiety, according to Zheng.

“So we wanted to explore a broader range of effects of air pollution on people’s daily lives in highly polluted Chinese cities,” she says.

To this end, the researchers used real-time data from social media to track how changing daily pollution levels impact people’s happiness in 144 Chinese cities.

In the past, happiness levels have typically been measured using questionnaires. However, such surveys provide only a single snapshot; people’s responses tend to reflect their overall feeling of well-being, rather than their happiness on particular days.

“Social media gives a real-time measure of people’s happiness levels and also provides a huge amount of data, across a lot of different cities,” Zheng says.

The researchers used information on urban levels of ultrafine particulate matter — PM 2.5 concentration — from the daily air quality readings released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Airborne particulate matter has become the primary air pollutant in Chinese cities in recent years, and PM 2.5 particles, which measure less than 2.5 microns in diameter, are particularly dangerous to people’s lungs.

To measure daily happiness levels for each city, the team applied a machine-learning algorithm to analyze the 210 million geotagged tweets from China’s largest microblogging platform, Sina Weibo.

The tweets cover a period from March to November 2014. For each tweet, the researchers applied the machine-trained sentiment analysis algorithm to measure the sentiment of the post. They then calculated the median value for that city and day, the so-called expressed happiness index, ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating a very negative mood, and 100 a very positive one.

Finally, the researchers merged this index with the daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data.

They found a significantly negative correlation between pollution and happiness levels. What’s more, women were more sensitive to higher pollution levels than men, as were those on higher incomes.

When the researchers looked at the type of cities that the tweets originated from, they found that people from the very cleanest and very dirtiest cities were the most severely affected by pollution levels.

Scientist Claims to Have Found the Solution Alternative to Plastic Water Bottles

The material needs to be tested by a trustworthy source for safety, but this invention could represent an advance that would drastically reduce the harms (such as the contaminants in the plastic) caused by the water bottles.

A British scientist claims to have invented a plastic-free, single-use water bottle that can decompose within three weeks.

The Choose Water bottle, developed by James Longcroft, aims to replace plastic bottles and help save the world’s oceans from plastic waste.

The outer lining of the bottle is made out of recycled paper donated by businesses, while the waterproof inner lining is made with a composite material Longcroft has developed himself.

All the constituents of the bottle can fully decompose within three weeks when left in water or landfill, and can be eaten by sea creatures, the company told Business Insider in a statement.

The steel cap on the bottle will also rust and fully decompose in about a year, Longcroft told the Evening Standard.

Plastic usually takes hundreds of years to break down.

Longcroft, who lives in Scotland, is still waiting for patents and started crowdfunding for the bottle on Monday. He has set a goal of £25,000 ($US34,000), of which he has raised about £8,000 ($US11,000) so far.

He hopes to see the bottles available in stores by the end of the year, and that they will be sold for about 85p and 90p (about $US1.2) so that they become a viable alternative to plastic, according to The Times.

Study: Personal Care Products Inhaled en Masse Contribute to Harmful Pollution “Rush Hour”

As if the air in much of the world wasn’t already polluted enough, this study reconfirms the importance of changing transportation systems to be far less dependent on fossil fuels and also the apparent importance of designing better personal care products.

When people are out and about, they leave plumes of chemicals behind them — from both car tailpipes and the products they put on their skin and hair. In fact, emissions of siloxane, a common ingredient in shampoos, lotions, and deodorants, are comparable in magnitude to the emissions of major components of vehicle exhaust, such as benzene, from rush-hour traffic in Boulder, Colorado, according to a new CIRES and NOAA study.

This work, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, is in line with other recent findings that chemical emissions from personal care products can contribute significantly to urban air pollution.

“We detected a pattern of emissions that coincides with human activity: people apply these products in the morning, leave their homes, and drive to work or school. So emissions spike during commuting hours,” said lead author Matthew Coggon, a CIRES scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder working in the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.

D5 Siloxane, short for decamethylcyclopentasiloxane, is added to personal care products like shampoos and lotions to give them a smooth, silky feeling. Siloxane belongs to a class of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs); once applied, they evaporate quickly. In the air, sunlight can trigger those VOCs to react with nitrogen oxides and other compounds to form ozone and particulate matter — two types of pollution that are regulated because of their effects on air quality and human health.

[…]

This study is part of an emerging body of research that finds emissions from consumer and industrial products are important sources of urban air pollution. A recent study in Science, led by CIRES and NOAA’s Brian McDonald, found that consumer and industrial products, including personal care products, household cleaners, paints, and pesticides, produced around half of the VOC emissions measured in Los Angeles during the study period.

Plants Can Absorb Toxins, Increasing Indoor Air Quality

Air quality is an important aspect of indoor environments, yet there is surprisingly little research on optimizing the role of plants for increasing that air quality, and even how plants can absorb indoor toxins doesn’t seem widely known.

People in industrialized countries spend more than 80% of their lives indoors, increasingly in air-tight buildings. These structures require less energy for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning, but can be hazardous to human health if particulate matter and potentially toxic gases, including carbon monoxide, ozone, and volatile organic compounds, from sources such as furniture, paints, carpets, and office equipment accumulate. Plants absorb toxins and can improve indoor air quality, but surprisingly little is known about what plants are best for the job and how we can make plants perform better indoor.

[…]

Plants improve air quality through several mechanisms: they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen through photosynthesis, they increase humidity by transpiring water vapor through microscopic leaf pores, and they can passively absorb pollutants on the external surfaces of leaves and on the plant root-soil system. But plants are usually selected for indoor use not for their air-purifying abilities but for their appearance and ability to survive while requiring little maintenance.

Study: 95% of World Population Exposed to Harmful Air Pollution

It’d thus be a good idea to redesign the energy systems of the world to use clean energy instead of fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Last year a major study found that pollution caused 9 million deaths and lead $4.6 trillion in damages annually.

More than 95 percent of people worldwide are exposed to dangerous air pollution, which kills millions each year and threatens billions more, according to a new analysis.

State of Global Air 2018: A Special Report on Global Exposure to Air Pollution and Its Disease Burden (pdf), published by the Health Effects Institute (HEI), details how exposure to air pollution—both indoor and outdoor—poses a mounting threat to public health.

Researchers found that air pollution is the top environmental cause of death globally, and ranks fourth overall among risk factors —behind high blood pressure, smoking, and dietary choices.

Household air pollution and ambient particular matter—a component of outdoor pollution—were listed individually among the top ten risk factors, and were tied to a combined 6.7 million deaths in 2016, the last year studied. Ozone, a harmful gas that contributes to outdoor pollution, was listed separately and tied to 234,000 deaths from chronic lung disease.

The study, said HEI president Dan Greenbaum, “leads a growing worldwide consensus—among the WHO, World Bank, International Energy Agency and others—that air pollution poses a major global public health challenge.”

“Nowhere is that risk more evident than in the developing world,” Greenbaum noted, “where a third of the world’s population faces a double burden of indoor and outdoor air pollution.”

The report found that “the elderly in low- and middle-income countries experience the greatest loss of healthy life-years due to the non-communicable diseases” linked to air pollution, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, lung cancer, and COPD.

The new analysis comes as the Trump administration moves to scale back air pollution protections to cater to U.S. manufacturers, part of the administration and Environmental Protection Agency’s broader deregulatory agenda.

Recent studies have shown that similar to the rest of the world, non-White Americans and those living in poverty are more likely to be exposed to polluted air.

Solution to Harmful Algal Blooms

Harmful algal blooms are often caused by nutrient pollution via overused chemicals such as phosphorous. These algal blooms regularly represent threats to water-based freshwater ecosystems, and so it’s useful that a solution to this problem is being introduced more.

A cheap, safe and effective method of dealing with harmful algal blooms is on the verge of being introduced following successful field and lab tests.

Moves to adopt use of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) as an effective treatment against toxic algae are already underway following the results of new research by a team from the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia (UEA.)

Successful trials last summer showed that H2O2 was effective against the golden algae, Prymnesium parvum. This is responsible for millions of fish kills worldwide each year and a threat to the £550m economy of the Broads National Park where trials are taking place.

Now follow up lab tests have demonstrated that controlled doses of the versatile chemical compound could be even more effective in dealing with cyanobacteria commonly known as blue green algae — a major public health hazard and potentially fatal to dogs and livestock.

Some of these exciting results are published today in the journal Biochemical Society Transactions along with a series of other scientific developments related to algal communities in the Broads National Park; one of the UK’s most popular and environmentally important network of waterways.

Dr Ben Wagstaff, one of the authors of the study from the John Innes Centre said: “We’ve demonstrated that the use of hydrogen peroxide is a practical, relatively easy way of managing these blooms.

“Work has already started to put together protocols for the use of hydrogen peroxide to control Prymnesium and our research showed that blue green algae are even more susceptible. You can potentially use even lower doses to wipe out blue-green blooms.”

The work in the Broads National Park could have widespread implications for the way harmful algal blooms are managed in waterways worldwide.

Toxins from Air Pollution Damage Child Development and Disproportionately Affect Those in Poverty

Air pollution causes health damage that’s too often overlooked, and the research that’s coming out has been showing this more and more lately.

Schoolchildren across the US are plagued by air pollution that’s linked to multiple brain-related problems, with black, Hispanic and low-income students most likely to be exposed to a fug of harmful toxins at school, scientists and educators have warned.

The warnings come after widespread exposure to toxins was found in new research using EPA and census data to map out the air pollution exposure for nearly 90,000 public schools across the US.

“This could well be impacting an entire generation of our society,” said Dr Sara Grineski, an academic who has authored the first national study, published in the journal Environmental Research, on air pollution and schools.

Grineski and her University of Utah colleague Timothy Collins grouped schools according to their level of exposure to more than a dozen neurotoxins, including lead, mercury and cyanide compounds.

The research found that:

  • Only 728 schools achieved the safest possible score.
  • Five of the 10 worst polluted school counties have non-white populations of over 20%
  • The five worst polluted areas include New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh, as well as Jersey City and Camden in New Jersey. One teacher in Camden told the Guardian that heavy industry was “destroying our children”.

Cash-strapped authorities have routinely placed schools on the cheapest available land, which is often beside busy roads, factories or on previously contaminated sites. Teacher unions worry that the Trump administration’s enthusiasm for charter schools, championed by education secretary Betsy DeVos, will diminish federal intervention to reverse this.

The study found that pre-kindergarten children are attending higher risk schools than older students – a stark finding given the vulnerability of developing brains.

Pollution exposure is also drawn along racial lines. While black children make up 16% of all US public school students, more than a quarter of them attend the schools worst affected by air pollution. By contrast, white children comprise 52% of the public school system but only 28% of those attend the highest risk schools. This disparity remains even when the urban-rural divide is accounted for.

Schools with large numbers of students of colour are routinely located near major roads and other sources of pollution, with many also grappling with other hazards such as lead-laced drinking water and toxins buried beneath school buildings

Grineski said there were a range of consequences. “We’re only now realizing how toxins don’t just affect the lungs but influence things like emotional development, autism, ADHD and mental health,” she said. “Socially marginalized populations are getting the worst exposure. When you look at the pattern, it’s so pervasive that you have to call it an injustice and racism.”

The research is “important and is consistent with other localized information we’ve seen over the years,” according to Stephen Lester, science director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“Children are facing risks that will affect their ability to learn,” he said. “It’s a serious problem that needs a serious government response.”

As scientists have pieced together evidence showing the link between air toxins and neurological harm, American cities are still largely wedded to a legacy that has juxtaposed certain neighborhoods with heavy traffic and hulking industry.

Only a handful of states require that schools are not placed next to environmental hazards. In 2010, the EPA issued national guidelines on picking school locations but backed away from imposing mandatory buffer zones.

The guidelines were deemed voluntary “after a whole lot of pushback from various financial and political interests,” according to Lester, who was part of a group advising the EPA.

[…]

Scientific endeavour is uncovering a jumble of neurological reactions to air pollution, from early onset Alzheimers to schizophrenia. Much of this work is in its infancy, but scientists say there is well established evidence that children are far more susceptible to pollutants than adults, with potentially severe consequences for their development.

[…]

“Before, we might have labelled a kid with bad behaviour as just being a bad kid,” said Keith Benson, who taught history in the Camden school system before becoming the head of the local teacher’s union.

“Now we are thinking about it another way. There’s no telling how much potential has been lost because of environmental issues, how many hopes were stunted because these kids were not close to clear air and water.”

Oil Giants Investing $180 Billion in Plastics

There may actually be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 if some current pollution trends continue, unfortunately. Plastic can also be a problem for humans because of how much tap water (83% worldwide, according to one study) is contaminated with tiny plastic fibers that can absorb nearby toxins.

Scientists and environmental protection advocates are warning that a coming plastics boom could lead to a permanent state of pollution on the planet—and denouncing the fossil fuel industry for driving an increase in plastics production amid all that’s known about the material polluting the world’s oceans.

“We could be locking in decades of expanded plastics production at precisely the time the world is realizing we should use far less of it,” Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law (CEIL), told the Guardian. The CEIL has compiled several reports about the plastics industry since September.

The American Chemistry Council, a trade organization, has acknowledged that fossil fuel companies including Exxon and Shell Chemical have poured more than $180 billion into the creation of plastics facilities that are expected to create a 40 percent rise in production of the material over the next decade.

The rise in shale gas exploration in recent years has caused the price of natural gas liquids, used to make plastic, to drop significantly, causing companies to begin more than 300 plastics production projects since 2010.

“Around 99 percent of the feedstock for plastics is fossil fuels, so we are looking at the same companies…that have helped create the climate crisis,” said Muffett. “There is a deep and pervasive relationship between oil and gas companies and plastics.”

The report follows the CEIL’s recent study, released earlier this month, which showed that the plastics industry has known its products were polluting the world’s oceans since the 1970s and has spent decades fighting regulations that aim to keep the crisis from getting worse.

“We are already producing more disposable plastic than we can deal with, more in the last decade than in the entire twentieth century, and millions of tons of it are ending up in our oceans,” Louise Edge, senior oceans campaigner for Greenpeace UK, told the Guardian.