Pollutants

Air pollution substantially reduces cognitive ability in older adults

  • A very large study shows that greater exposure to air pollution was linked to poorer cognitive performance in older adults, especially men and the less educated.

A large Chinese study involving 20,000 people has found that the longer people were exposed to air pollution, the worse their cognitive performance in verbal and math tests. The effect of air pollution on verbal tests became more pronounced with age, especially for men and the less educated.

The study followed the participants from 2010 to 2014, meaning that the same individuals could be assessed as air pollution varied from one year to the next.

The findings add to previous research showing the harmful effects of air pollution on cognitive performance in children.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/27/air-pollution-causes-huge-reduction-in-intelligence-study-reveals

Reference: 

Xin Zhang, Xi Chen, Xiaobo Zhang. 2018. The impact of exposure to air pollution on cognitive performance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2018, 115 (37) 9193-9197; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1809474115

 

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Air pollution exposure walking to school linked to slower growth of working memory

  • A large study has found higher levels of traffic-related air pollution, still within the EU safe limits, are associated with slower growth in working memory capacity in primary/elementary school children.

A Spanish study investigating the effects of traffic-related air pollution on children walking to school has found higher levels of particulate matter and black carbon were associated with decreased growth in working memory capacity. Working memory capacity grows during childhood (and tends to fall in old age).

The study involved 1,234 children aged 7-10, from 39 schools across the city of Barcelona. The children were tested four times over a year to establish their developmental trajectories in working memory and inattentiveness. Average particulate matter, black carbon, and nitrogen dioxide, were estimated for the children’s walking routes using standard measures.

None of the pollutants were associated with inattentiveness. The effect of NO2 on working memory was inconclusive. However, increased concentrations of particulate matter and black carbon were associated with a reduction in the annual growth of working memory of 4.6% and 3.9%, respectively. Boys were more affected than girls.

The study followed an earlier study showing that exposure to traffic-related pollutants in schools was associated with slower cognitive development. Research has previously shown that 20% of a child's daily dose of black carbon (which is directly related to traffic) is inhaled during urban commutes.

The finding emphasizes that even “short exposures to very high concentrations of pollutants can have a disproportionately high impact on health”, and this may be especially true for children, with their smaller lung capacity and higher breathing rate.

The researchers emphasize that the solution for parents is not to stop children walking to school, since those who commute by car or public transport are also exposed to the pollution. Rather, the aim should be to try and find (or make) less polluted, low-traffic paths to school.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/bifg-ape100517.php

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Air pollution during pregnancy linked to cognitive impairment in children

  • A largish study involving school-age children not at any particular risk has found that higher levels of air pollution experienced by the mother during pregnancy are linked to less gray matter in some brain regions.

Research using data from a population-based birth cohort from Rotterdam, in The Netherlands, has found that children exposed to higher levels of air pollution when they were in womb had significantly thinner cortex in several brain regions. Some of this appeared to be related to impaired inhibitory control.

The study involved 783 children aged 6 to 10, who were given brain imaging and cognitive tests. Levels of air pollution in the mother’s environment during pregnancy were estimated using a standardized procedure. Mean fine particle levels were 20.2 μg/m3, and nitrogen dioxide levels were 39.3μg/m3. Note that the EU limit for mean fine particles is actually above that (25μg/m3), while the NO2 level is at the EU limit (40μg/m3), with 45% of the Dutch population experiencing higher levels. The World Health Organization sets a much lower level for fine particles: 10 μg/m3.

Children whose mothers were smokers were excluded from the study, as were children from areas where pollution measures weren’t available. Children included tended to be from a higher socio-economic position compared to those not included. Moreover, children with ADHD, or developmental or behavioral problems, were also excluded.

Global brain volume was not affected by fetal exposure. However, several brain regions showed significantly thinner cortex — in particular, the precuneus and rostral middle frontal regions, which partially accounted for the observed association between fetal exposure to fine particles and impaired inhibitory control (the ability to control your own behavior, especially impulsive behavior). This sort of cognitive impairment at early ages could have significant long-term consequences in academic achievement, later career success, and even in risk of mental disorders.

The findings are consistent with other studies linking acceptable air pollution levels with problems including cognitive impairment and child development.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-03/e-apl030818.php

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Pesticides

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Pre-term labor drug sensitizes brain to pesticide injury

A rat study has found that unborn rats exposed to terbutaline - a drug commonly prescribed to halt pre-term labor and stave off premature birth - suffered greater brain cell damage than those not given the drug upon secondary exposure to the common insecticide chlorpyrifos. This suggests that this drug might leave the brains of children susceptible to other chemicals ubiquitously present in the environment, and may help explain earlier suggestions that children whose mothers are administered terbutaline suffer cognitive deficits.

[2387] Rhodes, M. C., Seidler F. J., Qiao D., Tate C. A., Cousins M. M., & Slotkin T. A.
(2004).  Does pharmacotherapy for preterm labor sensitize the developing brain to environmental neurotoxicants? Cellular and synaptic effects of sequential exposure to terbutaline and chlorpyrifos in neonatal rats.
Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. 195(2), 203 - 217.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-03/dumc-pld033004.php

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Plastics

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Pollutants affect babies' brains

It appears that exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in a mother's blood and breast milk can hinder the development of a baby's brain before and after birth. Although PCBs are now banned, these chemicals were once widely used in industry as coolants and lubricants and are still being leaked into the environment from old electrical equipment.

[591] Walkowiak, J., Wiener J. A., Fastabend A., Heinzow B., Krämer U., Schmidt E., et al.
(2001).  Environmental exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls and quality of the home environment: effects on psychodevelopment in early childhood.
Lancet. 358(9293), 1602 - 1607.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_1644000/1644446.stm

PCB-laden fish may affect adult verbal memory

The dangers of PCBs (once widely used as electrical insulators and lubricants and in paints and varnishes) have long been known, and assumed to apply chiefly to children and developing fetuses. A long-term study of those who eat the PCB-laden fish from Lake Michigan suggests for the first time that high levels of PCB may cause problems learning and remembering new verbal information in adults. In particular, those with high blood PCB levels had difficulties recalling a story told just 30 minutes earlier, and were less likely than their less-exposed peers to cluster words given orally into categories based on their meaning to boost recall.

Schantz, S.L., Gasior, D.M., Polverejan, E., McCaffrey, R.J., Sweeney, A.M., Humphrey, H.E.B. & Gardiner, J.C. 2001. Impairments of Memory and Learning in Older Adults Exposed to Polychlorinated Biphenyls via Consumption of Great Lakes Fish. Environmental Health Perspectives, 109 (6), 605.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-06/UoIa-Hcot-0406101.php
http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/2001/109-6/toc.html

How chronic exposure to solvents can impair the brain

Chronic occupational exposure to organic solvents, found in materials such as paints, printing and dry cleaning agents, has been linked to long-term cognitive impairment, but chronic solvent-induced encephalopathy (CSE) is still a controversial diagnosis. An imaging study of 10 CSE patients who had been exposed to solvents and had mild to severe cognitive impairment, 10 participants who had been exposed to solvents but had no CSE symptoms, and 11 participants who were not exposed to solvents and had no symptoms, has now found impairment in the frontal-striatal-thalamic (FST) circuitry of CSE patients. The disturbances are predictive of the clinical findings — impaired psychomotor speed and attention — and were also linked to exposure severity.

[989] van Dijk, F. J. H., Schene A. H., Heeten G D. J., Visser I., Lavini C., Booij J., et al.
(2008).  Cerebral impairment in chronic solvent-induced encephalopathy.
Annals of Neurology. 63(5), 572 - 580.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-04/w-dib041508.php

Chemical in clear plastics can impair learning

A rat study has found that low doses of the environmental contaminant bisphenol–A (BPA), widely used to make many plastics found in food storage containers (including feeding bottles for infants), inhibit estrogen–induction of synaptic connections in the hippocampus, suggesting implications for children's learning ability. Also, when the ability to make estrogen is impaired, as in old age, exposure to BPA could adversely affect hippocampal function and contribute to age–related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, in which hippocampal function is impaired. The doses were below the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reference daily limit for human exposure.

[740] MacLusky, N. J., Hajszan T., & Leranth C.
(2005).  The Environmental Estrogen Bisphenol A Inhibits Estradiol-Induced Hippocampal Synaptogenesis.
Environmental Health Perspectives. 113(6), 675 - 679.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-04/yu-cpi041205.php

 

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Working with solvents linked to cognitive problems in less-educated people

June, 2012

A study qualifies evidence that occupational exposure to solvents increases the risk of cognitive impairment later in life.

The study involved 4,134 people (average age 59) who worked at the French national gas and electric company, of whom most worked at the company for their entire career. Their lifetime exposure to chlorinated solvents, petroleum solvents, benzene and non-benzene aromatic solvents was estimated, and they were given the Digit Symbol Substitution Test to assess cognitive performance. Cognitive impairment was defined as scoring below the 25th percentile. Most of the participants (88%) were retired.

For analysis, participants were divided into two groups based on whether they had less than a secondary school education or not. This revealed an interesting finding: higher rates of solvent exposure were associated with cognitive impairment, in a dose-dependent relationship — but only in those with less than a high school education. Recency of solvent exposure also predicted worse cognition among the less-educated (suggesting that at least some of the damage was recoverable).

However, among those with secondary education or higher, there was no significant association between solvent exposure (quantity or recency) and cognition.

Over half the participants (58%) had less than a high school education. Of those, 32% had cognitive impairment — twice the rate in those with more education.

The type of solvent also made a difference, with non-benzene aromatic solvents the most dangerous, followed by benzene solvents, and then chlorinated and petroleum solvents (the rates of cognitive impairment among highly-exposed less-educated, was 36%, 24%, and 14%, respectively).

The findings point to the value of cognitive reserve, but I have several caveats. (Unfortunately, this study appears in a journal to which I don’t have access, so it’s possible the first of this at least is answered in the paper.) The first is that those with less education had higher rates of exposure, which raises the question of a threshold effect. Second is that the cognitive assessment is only at one point of time, lacking both a baseline (do we know what sort of average score adults of this age and with this little education would achieve? A quick online search threw up no such appropriate normative data) and a time-comparison that would give a rate of decline. Third, is that the cognitive assessment is very limited, being based on only one test.

In other words, the failure to find an effect among those with at least a high school education may well reflect the lack of sensitivity in the test (designed to assess brain damage). More sensitive tests, and test comparisons over time, may well give a different answer.

On its own, then, this finding is merely another data-point. But accumulating data-points is how we do science! Hopefully, in due course there’ll be a follow-up that will give us more information.

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Air pollution linked to age-related cognitive decline

April, 2012

A large long-running study of older women has found a dose-dependent association between air pollution and cognitive decline. A review has found a dose-dependent association between air pollution and risk of heart attack.

Data from the Nurses' Health Study Cognitive Cohort, involving 19,409 older women (70-81), has found that higher levels of long-term exposure to air pollution were associated with faster rates of cognitive decline over a four-year period.

For each 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air increase in pollutants, cognitive decline was comparable to two years of age-related decline.

Pollution exposure was estimated from geography. Cognition was tested by three telephone interviews, administered at roughly two-year intervals.

Air pollution linked to heart attack risk

Given the association between cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive decline (“What’s good for the heart is good for the brain”), it’s worth noting that a review of 34 studies has found that every main air pollutant, with the exception of ozone, was significantly associated with greater risk of heart attack. For most of the pollutants, an increase in concentration of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air – barely noticeable – was associated with a 1-3% increase in the chance of having a heart attack in the next week.

The size of the risk is small compared with traditional risk factors such as smoking status or hypertension or diabetes, but is something that those with other cardiovascular risk factors may want to consider. There’s also growing evidence that high levels of pollution increase stroke risk.

For more about the effects of air pollution on cognition

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Pollutants

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Pesticides

Plastics

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Prenatal exposure to urban air pollutants affects cognitive development

A study of 183 three-year-old children of non-smoking African-American and Dominican women residing in New York City has found that exposure during pregnancy to combustion-related urban air pollutants (specifically, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) was linked to significantly lower scores on mental development tests and more than double the risk of developmental delay at age three.

[1096] Camann, D., Kinney P., Perera F. P., Rauh V. A., Whyatt R. M., Tsai W-Y., et al.
(2006).  Effect of Prenatal Exposure to Airborne Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons on Neurodevelopment in the First 3 Years of Life among Inner-City Children.
Environmental Health Perspectives. 114(8), 1287 - 1292.

Full text available at http://www.ehponline.org/members/2006/9084/9084.pdf

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-04/cums-iue042506.php

Prenatal exposure to secondhand smoke increases risk of developmental delay

A new study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has found that children whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy to second-hand smoke have reduced scores on tests of cognitive development at age two, when compared to children from smoke-free homes. In addition, the children exposed to second-hand smoke during pregnancy are approximately twice as likely to have developmental scores below 80, which is indicative of developmental delay. These differences were magnified for children whose mothers lived in inadequate housing or had insufficient food or clothing during pregnancy. The combined effect results in a developmental deficit of about seven points in tests of cognitive performance.

Rauh, V.A., Whyatt, R.M., Garfinkel, R., Andrews, H., Hoepner, L., Reyes, A., Diaz, D., Camann, D. & Perera, F.P. 2004. Developmental effects of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and material hardship among inner-city children. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 26 (3), 373-385.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-03/nioe-sse031504.php

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Abnormal brain blood flow persisting in some Gulf War veterans

December, 2011

In a small study, some Gulf War syndromes are shown to have effects on the hippocampus that have persisted for 20 years, and in some cases worsened.

So-called ‘Gulf War syndrome’ is a poorly understood chronic condition associated with exposure to neurotoxic chemicals and nerve gas, and despite its name is associated with three main syndromes: impaired cognition (syndrome 1); confusion-ataxia (syndrome 2); central neuropathic pain (syndrome 3). Those with syndrome 2 are the most severely affected. Note that the use of the term ‘impaired cognition’ for syndrome 1 is not meant to indicate that the other syndromes show no impaired cognition; rather, it signals the absence of other primary symptoms such as ataxia and pain.

Symptoms of Gulf War syndrome include fatigue, neuropathic pain, memory and concentration deficits, balance disturbances and depression. Many of these symptoms suggest impairment of the hippocampus (among other regions, in particular the basal ganglia).

The new study follows up on an earlier study, with many of the same participants involved. A new, more sensitive, technique for assessing blood flow in the hippocampus was used to assess 35 patients with Gulf War syndromes and 13 controls. In the study of eleven years previous, those with syndrome 1 (impaired cognition) showed similar responses as the controls, while those with syndrome 2 (confusion-ataxia) showed abnormal blood flow in the right hippocampus.

In the present study, that abnormal hippocampal blood flow had progressed to the left hippocampus for those with syndrome 2 and to both hippocampi for those with syndrome 3. The results indicate that this alteration of hippocampal blood flow persists and can even worsen.

Around a quarter of U.S. military personnel deployed to the 1991 Persian Gulf War are estimated to be affected by Gulf War syndrome. Previous research has suggested genetic variation may underlie individuals’ vulnerability to neurotoxins.

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High levels of city pollution linked to brain damage in children

November, 2011
  • A small Mexican study provides more evidence for the negative effect of pollution on developing brains, with cognitive impairment linked to reduced white matter in specific regions.

In yet another study of the effects of pollution on growing brains, it has been found that children who grew up in Mexico City (known for its very high pollution levels) performed significantly worse on cognitive tests than those from Polotitlán, a city with a strong air quality rating.

The study involved 30 children aged 7 or 8, of whom 20 came from Mexico City, and 10 from Polotitlán. Those ten served as controls to the Mexico City group, of whom 10 had white matter hyperintensities in their brains, and 10 had not. Regardless of the presence of lesions, MC children were found to have significantly smaller white matter volumes in right parietal and bilateral temporal regions. Such reduced volumes were correlated with poorer performance on a variety of cognitive tests, especially those relating to attention, working memory, and learning.

It’s suggested that exposure to air pollution disturbs normal brain development, resulting in cognitive deficits.

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