GUEST BLOG: On Losing Your Marbles

Nov 14, 2018

By Bill Schlesinger
In the past, I’ve written on how air pollution affects human health, focusing on how breathing fine particles—PM2.5 or particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter—can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as respiratory diseases such as asthma and emphysema. (See: Small particles cause an inflammation of lung tissues which has ancillary impacts on the interior of arteries throughout our body. Globally, more than 3 million premature deaths occur each year as a result of this air pollution. Unfortunately, newly proposed policies suggest that those responsible for air quality in the United States don’t understand the science, or don’t care to.

Several new studies suggest that air pollutants in general—gases as well as particles—may be responsible for widespread cognitive decline in the human population, particularly in males. The most recent study from China, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the performance of students on standardized tests was lower in cities with polluted air. This study reports similar, but more significant, correlations between cognitive dysfunction and air pollution than found in an early study in Great Britain. In short, air pollution does more than irritate and inflame tissues; it can also cause neurological deterioration. Several studies also link Parkinson’s disease to fine particles in the atmosphere, although this correlation must certainly receive further study.

The medical costs of dementia are rising rapidly, yet few link the increased risk of dementia as a cost of dirty air. Rolling back the air pollution regulations of the Clean Power Plan will yield greater levels of air pollution, a greater risk for dementia-related illness, and greater future medical costs. We should not try to prop up the coal industry any more than we might have tried to prop up the business of mining lead for use in gasoline, paints, and water pipes after we discovered the neurological effects of lead in the human body. Lead poisoning and air pollution lead to a decline in mental function of the general populace.

With lead, we learned an important lesson in Flint, Michigan. We are about to do the same with the large swath of our citizens who will breathe polluted air under Trump’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule.

William H. Schlesinger is the James B. Duke professor emeritus of biogeochemistry and former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.  You can view the original post for this article along with others on his blog here:


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