Environmental Research has published a new study carried out Lilian Calderón-Garcidueña at the University of Montana and a team of international researchers that sheds light on the possible damage dirty air can have on our brains. The researchers found copious amounts of nanoparticles linked to neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, in the brain stems of nearly 200 young Mexico City residents under the age of 27 who had died suddenly. While the Mexican capital has long struggled with toxic air quality, the new study has global relevance as a whopping 90% of the world is exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.
According to the The Guardian,
There is already good statistical evidence that higher exposure to air pollution increases rates of neurodegenerative diseases, but the significance of the new study is that it shows a possible physical mechanism by which the damage is done. […]
“It is terrifying because, even in the infants, there is neuropathology in the brain stem,” said Prof Barbara Maher, at Lancaster University, UK, and part of the research team. “We can’t prove causality so far, but how could you expect these nanoparticles containing those metal species to sit inert and harmless inside critical cells of the brain? That’s the smoking gun – it seriously looks as if those nanoparticles are firing the bullets that are causing the observed neurodegenerative damage.”
The causes of neurodegenerative disease are complex and not fully understood. “There’s definitely going to be genetic factors and there’s highly likely to be other neurotoxicants,” said Maher. “But the thing that’s special about air pollution is how pervasively people are exposed to it. I don’t think that human systems have developed any defence mechanisms to protect themselves from nanoparticles.”
She said it was important to study children as they have not experienced other factors associated with dementia such as alcohol consumption: “So they become the canaries in the coalmine.”
The findings have yet to be confirmed by other members of the scientific community, but other experts have already carried out research that points towards a similar direction. When studies such as these are considered in tandem with what we already know about the dangers of unsafe air as well as the devastating impacts of climate change, the question that remains is this: What exactly are global leaders waiting for to meaningfully address air pollution?