“The Terrifying Truth about Air Pollution and Dementia”

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The Story

“The Terrifying Truth about Air Pollution and Dementia”
by Aaron Reuben
Mother Jones, June 24, 2015

The Pitch

There are children in this world with Alzheimer’s disease. They live in Mexico City and maybe other places too. Lacking the accumulated insults of age, these children don’t show the symptoms of dementia. Instead they have “lowered IQ” and increased “behavioral disorders.” But if you were to look into their brains you would see one thing that should not be there: amyloid plaques, the famous tangles that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. New research has found that there are children whose brains are packed with these plaques.  And alongside the plaque: soot.

For centuries we’ve had no idea what caused non-hereditary degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which together afflict 50 million people worldwide and six million in the United States. But over the last five years, new research has emerged that traces diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to a surprising source: the air we breathe. Particle exhaust from cars, trucks and factories, our most ubiquitous environmental pollutant, is emerging as a key driving factor in a host of degenerative brain diseases.

We now know that soot particles, the microscopic waste products of fossil fuel combustion, can reach the brain directly through the nose. Once there, inhaled soot can cause diffuse and potentially lasting damage.

It we take this new science seriously–and a broad consensus is emerging from researchers around the world, dozens of whom I’ve interviewed–it means taking a hard look at the costs of modern life. Even routine daily exposures in average American cities have been linked to lasting brain damage.

“People ask–how can it possibly be important?” says Dr. Eben Cross, an air pollution chemist at MIT. “It’s totally invisible.” I biked through rush hour Boston with Dr. Cross and $20k worth of monitoring equipment strapped to our backs to answer this question.  We are now producing an interactive map of our block-by-block pollution exposure. Often, what we found was shocking–street corners where particle concentrations exceed safe levels ten-fold, diesel pollution plumes that track bike lanes for miles, school yards that trap and concentrate the exhaust of buses idling nearby.

I am a former Alzheimer’s researcher at Columbia University, and an air pollution researcher at Yale, and I have been reporting on the pollution-Alzheimer’s link under a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, working with Bill McKibben, Ted Genoways, and Eric Bates. For Mother Jones I propose a 5,000-word feature that highlights the work of Dr. Cross, among others, and explores the routine risks we face in our cities every day.  In this story we will bike through rush hour Boston with Dr. Cross, see a crowded highway reborn in a test tube in Los Angeles, and travel to Mexico City in the 1990’s, when researchers first noticed that dogs exposed to urban air spontaneously develop dementia. Along the way we will learn how particle pollution enters our brain, and we’ll see what happens once it’s there.

I have already completed most of the reporting for this piece and have a draft in the works, which I would be happy to share.

This is a story with serious, lasting implications, but which has yet to be explored outside of academic circles. The science is new, but not speculative. Large population studies in America, Mexico, China, Poland, and Italy have confirmed these findings, as have animal studies and cross-city comparisons. We know the impacts of urban pollution on the brain can be severe–but we do not yet know how widespread or lasting they may be. Now is the perfect time to talk about the real risks we face everyday–and ask if we are willing to pay the true costs of our modern lifestyles.

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