The air that dims our brains

Maria Isabel Garcia

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Air pollution is making us dumb and it will grow worse because we are urbanizing fast

Whenever something goes wrong with our bodies and minds, we  go on the path to find out what has gone wrong. And often, we assume that it’s just one thing – usually, a process that is directly connected to the body part that’s bothering us. So when we have breathing problems, we blame the air. When we have stomach pain, we zero in on what we could have eaten that messed up the fine balance we have in our guts. When a particular group of our muscles ache, we try to recall a certain irregular stretch we may have done, or some overtime in inertia, like sitting in traffic for hours. We do that because our brains naturally want to make sense of what is going on. It will not settle unless it finds some kind of “explanation,” even if that explanation is wrong or incomplete.

But we also know that our bodies and minds are far more complex than the daily, straightforward self-diagnosis we make of our aches and pains. We know that health causes and effects form connections not just across our body parts but also between our health and the environment. And of course, there is also the process all bodies go through across time: aging. Knowing this, it should not surprise us that recently, scientists have discovered another “hidden” connection: air pollution is making us dumb.

A recent study has found that prolonged exposure to pollution causes significant declines in human intelligence, particularly among the elderly. The study collected pollution data across 162 counties in China and the cognitive test results of 25,000 people living there. They found that the verbal language and math abilities have dropped in those people who have had accumulated exposure to air pollution, but a lot more with elder men. This shows that aside from the natural vulnerabilities of the aging body and mind, an environmental cause like air pollution is yet another thing that will be challenging for adults to deal with as they grow older.

This is certainly not good news for countries like ours whose enforcement of air pollution policies demonstrates only, at best, occasional bursts of commitment to clean the air. In the local news recently, a lot of talk has been going on about allowing fuel grades that emit higher vehicular emission because they are cheaper. The government in the past has mandated switching to higher fuel grades with less emissions, but faced with protests over rising prices, they seem to be backtracking on that commitment. And in AM radio shows that interview public officials, I have not yet heard anyone raise the issue of clean air, our breathing requirements, and now with this study, the threat of air pollution to the IQ of older Filipino men.

The effect of air pollution on children’s IQ has already been previously established. A past study found that children who live in highly urbanized areas with heavy pollution suffer damages to their IQ even before they take their first breath outside the womb. This is because of the mother’s exposure to toxic fumes. The effects were seen when the same kids were tested a few years later.

A related study that was published recently showed that the effect of air pollution is much worse on kids who have the gene often implicated in Alzheimer’s in older years, as compared to kids who do not have it. These kids have lower IQ, more behavioral problems, and a smaller brain part called the caudate nucleus which plays major roles in learning and behavior.

Air pollution is making us dumb and it will grow worse because we are urbanizing fast. More and more places are being transformed into cities which, if we are not vigilant, will turn into the same urban places whose land, water, and air have become blurry and dim. This means if we do not get our act together, the places we love will grow dim, and our minds, literally, along with them. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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