What is pollution doing to our brains? Daily Telegraph, 17 June 2019

Professor Frank Kelly, Analytical Environmental and Forensic Sciences, is quoted in a comment piece on air quality in the Telegraph

Particles known as PM2.5 - the tiny, invisible, sooty bits of combustion  are key culprits in the air pollution health crisis.

Produced by diesel and petrol fumes, log burners and even conventional ovens, PM2.5s are small enough to make it deep into the lungs and from there into the bloodstream. They’ve been linked to diseases ranging from cancer to high blood pressure and, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) puts it, “increased mortality or morbidity”.

Increasingly, researchers are studying pollution’s effects on mental health, cognitive development and decline too - on attention spans and educational attainment in the young, on productivity in adults, and on diseases like Alzheimer’s in the old. Their findings are not reassuring.


Last month, for example, came the results of a large study carried out in Barcelona, involving more than 2,200 children aged between 7 and 10. Its conclusions were stark: “Early life exposure to PM2.5 was associated with a reduction in fundamental cognitive abilities, including working memory and [attention]”. Boys, it said, showed “much higher vulnerability”.

Last year, a study tracking 131,000 patients aged 50 to 79 in London found that, even with other factors like smoking and diabetes taken into account, those in the most polluted areas were 40 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than those in the least polluted.

Another significant study last summer, this time in China, quantified the effects of pollution on verbal and arithmetical reasoning as equivalent to “a few years of education”. “As people age, the negative effect becomes more pronounced, especially for men,” the study noted. And these are just three in an increasingly significant body of studies. 

It is unclear precisely how the cocktail of chemicals in PM2.5 particulates, in combination with other pollutants like nitrogen and sulphur dioxides, is impacting brain function. “Little is known about the possible mechanisms,” says Professor Frank Kelly, a leading expert at Kings College London, “other than pollution in general leads to increased systemic inflammation which damages (amongst others) the blood vessels supplying the brain.”

The full article can be accessed at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/air-pollution-ruining-memory/