New research has linked exposure to air pollution with dementia. We need the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do better to protect public health. Action Alert!
A new meta-analysis from Harvard University has found a link between exposure to microscopic particulate matter—known as PM 2.5 because the particles less than 2.5 microns in width—with dementia. This is just the latest addition to a laundry list of scary health effects associated with human exposure to air pollution, but, as is too often the case, the EPA is applying the “soft touch” to address this issue, lest they offend the financial interests of the polluters. We must apply pressure to the EPA so the agency looks out for public health, not industry profits.
The researchers looked at 51 studies from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. They found that higher exposures to PM 2.5 was associated with increased risk for dementia. For every 2 microgram/m3 increase in PM 2.5 concentration in the air, dementia risk rose by 4 percent. Air concentrations of PM 2.5 in cities range from 10 micrograms/m3 to more than 100 micrograms/m3 . The World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines state that average annual concentrations of PM 2.5 should not exceed 5 micrograms/m3. An editorial linked to the new study concludes that PM 2.5 has the potential to “substantially affect dementia risk globally.”
Scientists hypothesize that the tiny PM 2.5 particles enter the circulatory system that fuels the brain, causing inflammation and the buildup of beta amyloid levels. The brains of Alzheimer’s patients often have higher than normal levels of beta amyloid that clump together, form plaques, and disrupt the functioning of neurons.
This is a colossal problem requiring an appropriately bold response. Only 0.18 percent of the world’s population has annual PM 2.5 exposures lower than the guidelines set by the WHO. The American Lung Association, in its 2022 “State of the Air” report, found that more than 4 in 10 Americans live in areas with unhealthy air quality. Incidence of dementia is set to explode: the number of people with dementia worldwide is predicted to rise from 50 million people in 2020 to 150 million by 2050. Doing nothing about our exposure to air pollution adds fuel to a fire that is already blazing.
The EPA is considering a rule change to set air quality standards to a level between 9-10 micrograms/m3, down from 12-15 micrograms/m3. If the change goes through it is estimated to prevent 4,200 premature deaths per year. That is something but falls well short of achieving the safe levels set by the WHO to protect human health. The evidence is clear: reducing air pollution saves lives and increases life expectancy. This isn’t the time for half-measures: outdoor and household air pollution accounted for 12 percent of all deaths in 2019. The evidence is now consistently demonstrating that the adverse effects of air pollution are not limited to high exposures, but can be observed at very low concentrations.
As mentioned above, dementia is just the latest health effect linked with air pollution. Other research has linked air pollution with heart disease and stroke, low birth weight, circulatory problems, lung cancer mortality, worsening asthma, diabetes, cognitive decline, and early death.
It’s worth noting that air pollution disproportionately affects vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, and those who live in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, as these neighborhoods can be near highways and industrial plants that generate the highest levels of exposure.
The EPA needs to hear from concerned citizens that public health must trump industry profits when it comes to controlling air pollution. Our health, particularly the health of our children and other vulnerable groups, depends on the EPA doing its job, not looking out for industry.
Action Alert! Write to the EPA and tell them to protect public health and adopt stricter standards for PM 2.5 pollution. Please send your message immediately.