Research including over 25,000 participants in China, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has shown that air pollution affects brain function. Xi Chen and his colleagues Xi Zhang and Xiaobo Zhang monitored participant’s test performance in math and language skills and correlated them to their exposure to air pollution levels. Using statistical analysis to lessen confounding factors, Chen and colleagues found that participants exposed to air pollution longest showed significantly reduced cognitive test scores - on average equivalent to the loss of one year of schooling. While the effects of air pollution on pulmonary and heart disease has been researched and accepted publicly, Chen’s research published this year is the first to definitively correlate brain function and air pollution.
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Air pollution, especially in cities, is a global problem affecting the health of millions of people every year. Not only does air pollution affect human brains and bodies, it effects the brains and bodies of our fellow life-forms which further raises the stakes by threatening earth’s vital life-support systems. Is it possible that these findings will spurr individuals into choosing cleaner modes of transport and changing their consumption habits? Or, will it merely add pressure to hasten enactment of stronger legislation and further investment in clean infrastructure? What would need to happen for both bottom-up and top-down change to meet the this global health crisis?