It has long been established that exposure to air pollution can damage people’s hearts and lungs. Recently an increasing amount of evidence has been building which implies air pollution can also harm the brain. What are the air pollutants that can damage people’s brains, and how can air pollution that harms the brain be controlled?
Air Pollutants Which Can Damage The Brain
Air pollutants which can damage the brain include lead, mercury, and particulate matter. These air pollutants can come from a variety of sources, with particulate matter pollution being the most abundant in the air overall.
Particulate matter pollution refers to fine particles released primarily by the combustion of materials. Particulate matter is typically divided into three different categories: PM10, which refers to particles 10 µm in size or smaller, PM2.5 which refers to particles 2.5 µm in size or smaller and PM1 which refers to particles 1 µm in size or smaller. The smaller these particles are the more damage they can do, so PM1 exposure is especially dangerous.
“Sources of these tiny particles are varied, as particulate matter pollution can come in many different shapes and sizes,” says Camfil USA’s Charlie Seyffer, Manager of Marketing & Technical Materials and 37-year ASHRAE member and active committee participant “Some particulates come directly from sources like fireplaces, smokestacks, and construction sites. Yet many particles form as the result of interactions between different chemicals already present in the atmosphere such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide which are both emitted by power plants and automobiles.” (1)
Mercury is a highly dangerous neurotoxin which can come from both man-made and natural sources. Natural sources like volcanoes can spew mercury into the air, but a large amount of mercury is also emitted by sources like industrial boilers, and coal-fired power plants. Mercury can build up in the body of animals like fish, and move up the food chain when it is consumed by other animals.
The dangers of lead exposure are well known, as it can damage almost the entire body. Lead air pollution can come from a variety of different sources like fuel for piston-engine planes, the refining of ore, waste-incinerators and from the manufacturing of lead-acid batteries. Lead use to be very common in gasoline for motor vehicles, but efforts by the EPA cut the lead in the air by 98% between 1980 and 2014.
How Air Pollution Damages The Brain
Research into how air pollution damages the brain has shown that air pollution can harm the brain by increasing the odds of developing neurological diseases, increasing the frequency of strokes, and inhibiting the brain’s growth and development.
“Fine particulate matter is so small that it can easily penetrate people’s lungs and bloodstream. The particulate matter can even ride the bloodstream up to the brain where it can contribute to strokes,” says Seyffer at Camfil. “Particulate matter is thought to cause hundreds to thousands of strokes a year, and studies have found correlations between exposure to sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone and increased the chance of having a stroke.” (2)
Exposure to fine particulate matter has also been correlated with the development of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases as well as the possible development of autism when pregnant women are exposed to particulate matter in the third trimester.
Because mercury can lay dormant in the body for years, even mothers who do not show symptoms of mercury poisoning can give birth to children with neurological impairments after being exposed to mercury. In utero exposure to mercury can impact a child’s developing nervous system and brain, resulting in impaired cognitive abilities like language skills, memory, attention, and motor skills.
“Lead poisoning is extremely dangerous, and there is no known safe level of lead exposure,” says Seyffer. “Lead poisoning can damage a person’s entire body, distributed primarily amongst the brain, kidney, liver, and bones. High levels of lead exposure can cause brain damage and impaired mental functioning even in adults, but the damage is much more pronounced in children.” (3)
Controlling Air Pollution that Harms The Brain
Controlling air pollution that harms the brain involves limiting the sources of pollutants. Source control for particulate matter, mercury, and lead emissions can be done through a combination of different techniques like regulation and innovation.
“Regulations and limitations on the emissions of particulate matter help cut down on the levels of particulate matter in the air,” explains Seyffer. “The Clean Air Act is responsible for saving thousands of lives a year by reducing levels of criteria air pollutants including particulate air pollution and has reduced levels of lead air pollution by 85% between 1990 and 2015. Tightened restrictions on levels of particulate air pollution can continue to save lives and prevent the development of neurological diseases.” (4)
Technological innovation can also play a role in reducing levels of atmospheric pollutants. Hybrid vehicles use less gas, and thanks to more efficient combustion engines fewer pollutants are released into the air. Power plants have installed scrubbers and capture devices on incinerators, which helps limits emissions of heavy metals like lead and mercury.
Filters can be employed within homes and businesses to limit air pollutants that come from inside the buildings or come in from outdoors. Selecting filters with high particle removal efficiency can benefit all building occupants. In areas of high contaminant level concern, the minimum filter efficiency level should be MERV 13 or ePM1-50 when the filters are evaluated according to current filter testing standards.
Controlling the air pollution that harms the brain is necessary for the health of society, and we must work together to limit the dangerous air pollutants that can cause neurological diseases.
Camfil air filtration company can provide you with the high quality commercial filters necessary to protect yourself and your family from air pollution that harms the brain. Contact Camfil today, as air pollution can cause not only brain damage but damage to your heart and lungs as well.