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Environmental Pollution Can Affect the Brain

An investigation found that during the first years of life, the brain can under go structural changes if it is exposed to atmospheric pollutants.

Boy walking in a polluted area

Photo: Unsplash

LatinAmerican Post | Julieta Gutiérrez

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Leer en español: La contaminación ambiental puede afectar el cerebro

There are several types of environmental pollutants. They can be particulate material compounds or gaseous compounds. Among the gaseous pollutants is Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), which is a reactive gas in the atmosphere. 93% of it is emmited due to the burning of fossil fuels, in transport and electric power industries. And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is a direct relationship between the concentration of SO2 in the air and the negative consequences on the human body.

This shows that despite the fact that globalization and economic growth have given great benefits to humanity; they have also caused great risks and damage to people's health. Breathing chemicals such as fine particles or nitrogen dioxide affects areas related to learning and brain function.

According to a study conducted by the academic journal Environmental Pollution, breathing large doses of air pollutants alters activity levels in certain parts of the brain, causing mental disorders and atrophy in the development of white matter. This function is to protect the nerve fibers from any type of injury, improve the speed and connectivity of the electrical signals of the nerves. In other words, it affects the learning process.

According to the study published by the academic journal, these alterations in the functionality of the brain are mainly caused by fine particles in suspension of less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5); which are very small fragments that are in the air and can be derived from dust, ashes, cement, pollen, among other substances. Furthermore, these tiny particles have a diameter of 2.5 microns, which is less than the width of a human hair.

Also, the investigation mentioned another chemical cause such as nitrogen dioxide, which is mainly caused by automobile emissions. For the preparation of the study, data were collected from 3,515 children from the population of Rotterdam, the Netherlands from 2002 to 2006. In addition, said research showed that daily levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and material particulate in the homes of children and expectant mothers.

On the other hand, the study published by the academic journal had as its main objective to identify the existence of certain periods in which there is greater vulnerability to air pollution during conception and the first years of life. To do this, they used a non-invasive method that can be used to examine the integrity of the brain's white matter known as diffusion tensor imaging. This technique allowed them to observe exact times of sensitivity to all environmental contaminants; which were presented specifically from the gestation period to 5 years of age.

Finally, the study said that pregnancy, conception and early childhood are very sensitive times to exposure to air pollution that can effect with greater susceptibility the advancement of white matter microstructure. It stated that more studies are needed with periodic measurements of brain results, in order to understand the long-term effects that exposure to environmental pollution can cause.

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More studies confirm

This recent study joins many others that have been developed in various countries that have found that environmental pollution indeed has a negative impact on the brain. For example, research published in the Neurology Journal found that exposure to air pollution can accelerate aging. "The change in cognition was the equivalent of 1 year of aging. Although small, the global impact can be huge. If air pollution causes faster cognitive decline, people who are exposed to long-term pollution may run higher risk," the report said.

On the other hand, the WHO has pointed out that air pollution may be associated with an increased risk of suffering from arteriosclerosis, problems in neuronal development, respiratory diseases or diabetes. In fact, the United Nations has declared that air pollution constitutes the greatest current environmental risk to human health and causes 7 million premature deaths per year.