New research results link air pollution and brain cancer. The study, led by Scott Weichenthal, at McGill University in Canada, shows that ultrafine particles, or nanoparticles can carry carcinogens into the brain and cause brain tumors. The new study was published in the journal of Epidemiology.
In addition, recent reports also show that air pollution can cause brain diseases in children, young adults, and adults. The damages have all the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s Disease, usually associated with the elderly population.
Where does the air pollution come from?
The main components in dirty air contributing to brain disease are airborne contaminants, such as:
- sooth from diesel vehicles
- fine particulate matter emissions from industrial and manufacturing facilities,
- toxic gases such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides,
- mineral dust and nanospheres of (free crystalline silica, or a.k.a quartz), coal and cement,
- Chemical dust from bulk chemicals and pesticides,
- Biohazards, such as molds and spores
- Metallic dust containing lead, cadmium, nickel, beryllium, and lead
- Fine particles from fires, charcoal or wood-burning
- Secondhand smoking
The World Health Organization estimates that globally, 90 to 95% of the earth’s population is exposed to dirty and unsafe air. In the US, 40% of the population is continuously exposed to harmful air.
How does air pollution affect us?
With every breath we take we inhale these airborne pollutants. The surface of our lungs is the size of a tennis court. An adult breathes about 3000 gallons of air per day. The lungs are the port of entry for airborne pollutants into our bodies.
The unsafe air we breathe not only damages our lungs but also other vital organs, such as the heart and brain. Among many others, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and diabetes are widespread in individuals exposed to dirty air.
While cardiovascular and respiratory diseases can be directly linked, there is a gap in knowledge to connect brain diseases to air pollution.
Nevertheless, brain damage and cognitive impairment induced by air pollution are declared a “silent public health emergency.” Emerging knowledge from current research directly links terrible air quality to brain disease.
Toxic gases such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides and secondhand smoke immediately passes from the lungs into the bloodstream and reaches our brain. Prolonged exposure to air pollution can cause brain damage as the brain is the most sensitive and susceptible organ to toxins and harmful gases.
Most of the brain cells are located in a region of the brain called the white matter. Brains from individuals exposed to heavy air pollution showed an accumulation of amyloid-beta and hyperphosphorylated tau, both found in the brains of patients who have Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). AD and AD-like disease not only erase our memory and disable our cognition in their final stages, but increasingly impair our cognitive functions and memory during the developmental stages of this disease. Continuous exposure to harmful air can accelerate the development of AD and other brain diseases.
Toxic gases are known to damage brain cells through the so-called reactive oxygens species or ROS.
Another emerging contributor to brain damage is the nitrosative stress induced by nitrogen oxides and reactive nitrogen species (RNS).
Continuous exposure to ROS and RNS, resulting in chronic oxidative stress, a very damaging condition to the brain cells. Damaged brain cells continuously exposed to oxidative stress degenerate and die. Brain cell loss is irreversible and causes gradually increasing damage in cognitive capability, memory storage and recall and functional decline as observed in Alzheimer’s Disease.
How can we avoid polluted air?
We can avoid but not completely shun airborne pollution. Keeping away from areas with dirty air, staying away from smokers, using air filters in our homes and cars while driving can help clean up the air we breathe. However, air pollution in our modern lives cannot be eluded entirely.
Powerful antioxidants such as resveratrol or the more potent cousin, Pterostilbene, can help fortify the brain cells against oxidative stress. Vitamins B12, A are also potent antioxidants. Damaged cells are capable of self-repair to a certain extent, and Phosphatidylserine can help these cells to maintain their health and integrity. Niacin, Uridine, and Vitamin B6 help restore cell function. Rhodiola, a well-studied and potent neuroprotective herb, is known to shield brain cells against reactive oxygen species.
Air-pollution induced brain damaged can no longer be ignored; our society and future depend on productive minds and cognitive accuracy.