‘Fine particles in the air affect our brains’
Fine particles in the air are not only an unseen killer, but the polluted air also affects our mental capacities. Pollution can cause infections in the lungs, which in turn can lead to infections in our brains.
More and more studies show that fine particles in the air can harm our intellectual capacities. Not only in the long term but also immediately. Researchers of the Maastricht University and IZA Boston compared 20 480 moves of tournament chess players in Germany with the moves a computer model would have made. This way, they discovered small and large ‘mistakes’.
Then they compared the results with the measurements of the air quality in the hall. The results were stunning: the number of mistakes went up with 10% for every additional ten micrograms of pollution in the air. The effects of particles were even more significant under pressure. CO2 and temperature, however, didn’t affect the results.
More pollution, more mistakes
Earlier studies already showed that referees tend to misjudge more balls when the pollution level in the air is higher. Even the results of students’ exams are influenced by the presence of particles. According to the American Economic Journal, the results of Isreali students taking their exams at the end of their secondary education were significantly worse when pollution levels were high.
“Particles in the air can affect the brains in several ways,” explains Tim Nawrot, professor of environmental epidemiology at the Hasselt and Louvain University. “Particles can cause infections in the lungs, which can lead to infections in the brains. The smallest particles are even capable of reaching the brains directly through the odor nerve, which can cause infections as well. Particles influence the capillaries, diminishing the bleeding, and causing a lack of oxygen and nutrients.”
“The good news, however, is that the acute effects are reversible,” says Nawrot. “Once the particle concentrations decrease, the effect on our mental capacities is reversed.” The presence of particles, however, can also affect our brains in the long run. Someone living in an area with highly polluted air has a higher risk of dementia.
According to the European Environmental Agency (Europees MilieuAgentschap), in 2016, fine particles in the air caused 7 600 premature deaths in Belgium. Particles relate to a whole series of diseases, like lung and cardiovascular diseases, and they’re also responsible for a lower weight at birth. The World Health Organization earlier warned that fine particles kill 7 million people worldwide per year.
Also, the economy takes a heavy toll. The OECD stated that a 1 μg/m3 increase of particle concentrations per year leads to a 0,8% decline in economic activities. That is far more than expected. 95% of the impact is due to the decreased output per co-worker, so, production goes down, and absenteeism goes up.
Reducing emissions will cost money, but it will pay back abundantly, according to the OECD. Reducing European emissions by one quarter would bring in at least the double.