Groundbreaking study reveals traffic pollution increases the risk of cancer and brain dysfunction

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diesel-exhaust(NaturalHealth365)  There is no more personal, important, and life-sustaining act than drawing breath.  And there is no more precious element on the planet than clean air.  Yet, all too often, this vital resource is contaminated by pollutants.  When inhaled, these microscopic contaminants can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream – increasing the risk of cancer plus many other serious health issues.

In fact, according to a recent study published in Environmental Research, pollution was associated with a shocking nine million premature deaths worldwide in 2018.

Researchers have long been aware that traffic pollution can affect the health of the circulatory and respiratory systems.  Now, a newly-published Canadian study – the first of its kind – evaluates the effects of diesel exhaust and traffic pollution on the human brain.

Exposure to diesel exhaust can stop us from thinking clearly

To perform the small but well-controlled study – conducted jointly by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria and published in Environmental Health – researchers exposed 25 healthy adult volunteers to freshly-generated diesel exhaust.  Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the team found that exposure to diesel fumes disrupted functional connectivity – the ability of different areas of the brain to communicate and interact with each other.  This, in turn, caused changes to the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which plays a vital role in memory and thought.  Disturbingly, prolonged exposure was not needed to trigger the changes in the DMN.  The scientists reported that the impairments appeared after exposures as brief as two hours.

The implications are troubling.  The study suggests that – in addition to causing a litany of other adverse effects – traffic pollution may interfere with the sharpness and richness of our memories, the clarity of our thinking, and the stability of our moods.

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The researchers noted that altered functional connectivity in the brain’s default mode network is associated with reduced cognitive performance – a finding that they termed “disturbing.” They also noted a connection between altered functional connectivity and symptoms of depression.  The team reported that the changes in the brain appeared to be temporary, with participants’ connectivity returning to normal after exposures.  But, the researchers were concerned that continuous exposure could cause long-lasting effects.  And diesel exhaust isn’t the only source of worry.

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The scientists noted that exposure to other air pollutants, such as forest fire smoke, would presumably have similar effects.  “Air pollution is now recognized as the largest environmental threat to human health, and we are increasingly seeing the impacts across all major organ systems,” warns Dr. Chris Carlsten, professor and head of Respiratory Medicine at the University of British Columbia and lead author on the study.

A “toxic cocktail” of chemicals contaminates the air we breathe

Diesel engine exhaust, which is a mixture of gases and fine particles, contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants – including benzene, arsenic, and formaldehyde.  Also included in this “witches’ brew” of chemicals are nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide.  Many health authorities and national agencies have sounded the alarm on the hazards of traffic pollution.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies diesel exhaust as carcinogenic to humans, while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warns that exposure to diesel exhaust can irritate the eyes and nose, causing headaches, coughing, and nausea – as well as raising the risk of respiratory diseases, bladder cancer, and lung cancer.  (The elderly and people with emphysema, asthma, and chronic heart and lung disease are especially at risk).

The American Cancer Society states that long-term exposure to diesel exhaust causes cancer in animals and can increase lung cancer risk in humans.  Finally, experts at Harvard Medical School report that increased outdoor levels of fine particulate matter correspond to increased hospitalizations for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and COPD.

Limit exposure to traffic pollution through common-sense techniques

While traffic pollution may seem to be unavoidable, the following small but useful steps can help you minimize your exposure.

Dr. Carlsten recommends that you avoid sitting in traffic with car windows rolled down.  Keep your car’s air filter in good working order, and don’t allow your vehicle to idle.  Those walking, jogging, or cycling on busy streets may want to consider a less-congested alternate route, if possible.  Try to vary your route to include a passage through some green spaces such as parks, municipal gardens, or landscaped city squares.

To reduce indoor air pollution, put more plants inside your home like Bamboo Palm, Chinese Evergreen, and Peace Lily.  And for better quality nutrition and less exposure to air pollution, shop locally – to cut down on unnecessary automotive driving time.

In addition, use an air purification device at home or in your workplace to remove unwanted pollution in your immediate environment.  And, finally – if possible, make the move to live in a less-congested part of the country.  Getting away from “big city” life has many health benefits.

Clearly, traffic pollution can increase your risk of cancer and brain problems.  But, thankfully, we can minimize the risk with a little effort.  Remember, your health is important.  Don’t wait … take action today.

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