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A five year study of 20,000 people in China finds air pollution lowers intelligence. The impact is greatest on older males. The byproducts of burning fossil fuels are the primary cause, the researchers found.

Air Quality

New Study Finds Air Pollution Lowers Intelligence

A five year study of 20,000 people in China finds air pollution lowers intelligence. The impact is greatest on older males. The byproducts of burning fossil fuels are the primary cause, the researchers found.

It is well known that air pollution has negative effects on human health. Many health professionals believe it is the cause of 7 million premature deaths a year world wide. Small particulates — generally associated with burning fossil fuels — are able to cross into the bloodstream in the lungs, leading to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease.

trucks fuel economy rules and air pollution

Researchers analyzed language and arithmetic tests conducted as part of the China Family Panel Studies on 20,000 people across the nation between 2010 and 2014. Comparing the results with records of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide pollution, they found a strong correlation between air pollution and intelligence, according to a report in The Guardian. The data revealed that high pollution levels lead to a decrease in test scores in both language and arithmetic, with the average impact equivalent to having lost a year of the person’s education.

“Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge,” said Xi Chen of the Yale School of Public Health and a member of the research team. “But we know the effect is worse for the elderly, especially those over 64, and for men, and for those with low education. If we calculate [the loss] for those, it may be a few years of education.” The study results were published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers found more damage to intelligence occurred the longer people were exposed to polluted air. Language ability suffered more than mathematical ability and men were more harmed than women. The researchers say this may result from differences in how male and female brains work. “Governments really need to take concrete measures to reduce air pollution,” Chen says. “That may benefit human capital, which is one of the most important driving forces of economic growth.” China is home to several of the 20 most polluted cities according to data compiled by the World Health Organization.

Chen adds the results apply equally to all parts of the world. “That is the same wherever you live. As human beings we have more in common than is different.” A one milligram increase in pollution over three years can lead to losing more than a month of education. The study followed the same individuals as air pollution varied from one year to the next, meaning that many other possible causal factors such as genetic differences are automatically accounted for.

Derrick Ho of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University agrees air pollution has an important impact on brain function. His group has had similar findings in its own research. “It is because high air pollution can potentially be associated with oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and neurodegeneration of humans,” he said.

This research should be of interest to anyone in America, where the country’s alleged leaders are hellbent on rolling back emissions standards previously set by the government. The result of that action, if allowed to stand, will subject all US citizens to higher levels of air pollution in the name of boosting profits for fossil fuel companies. Why voters continue to elect people who knowingly inflict negative health consequences on their constituents is itself a subject that could benefit from serious scientific research.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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