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Air Pollution Dangers

May 30, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

When it comes to degenerative brain disease, the conclusion reached in recent research seems like…well…a no-brainer.

Air pollution, according to one study leader:

“… could be the most pervasive potential cause of brain disease that scientists have ever discovered.”

Wait—we needed a boatload of research dollars to figure this out? After all, air pollution is a proven cause or accelerant of asthma, lung infections, and lung cancer. There’s also suggestive evidence linking it to diseases ranging from heart disease to obesity.

It’s only commonsense that these pollutants are wreaking similar havoc in our brains.

Every breath we take

Proving that air pollution causes X or Y disease is terrifically difficult.

One obstacle? It’s “pervasive,” as the researcher above put it. We encounter pollution every time we inhale, both indoors and out, from our first breath to our last.

Another hurdle? It’s incredibly difficult to pinpoint causation when there are hundreds of potential pollutants, each impacting the billions of cellular interactions that take place every second—most of them up to 1,000 times smaller than a grain of sand.

When we’re healthy, we have good natural defenses against these particles. But some find a way past them into our bodies, where they can travel into our brains and lungs.

A needle in a haystack? That’s child’s play.

But that didn’t stop our determined research colleagues, who followed more than 19,000 American women over four years.

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Topline finding: The women exposed to the most air pollution showed the equivalent of about a two-year decline in brain function—meaning the possible onset of dementia two years earlier than among the less exposed women.

Breathing to death, not just dementia, everywhere

We used to think air pollution was confined to industrial or car-packed cities. No longer. It’s now a global problem—even in the Antarctic, traces of airborne pollutants originating thousands of miles away are commonplace.

Here in the U.S., preventive measures have made our air cleaner than decades ago. But air pollution still causes as many as 50,000 deaths per year, to the mournful tune of up to $40 billion a year in care and lost productivity.

The American Lung Association estimates that more than 46 million Americans—about 15 percent of us—are routinely exposed to air pollution that exceeds Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety standards. An additional 44.1 million are blasted by dangerous exposure on “bad air days” and seasonal pollution spikes.

That’s 90 million of our fellow citizens, already damaged or at risk.

And that’s just from outdoor air pollution.

In your home: even worse

Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s worse indoors. Big Chemistry has given us a broad array of “convenient” cleaning, disinfecting, and (laughably) air-freshening products that are likely wreaking havoc on your body as you read this.

My advice?

  • Get an air purifier. It’s an affordable, effective investment in your health.
  • Replace household cleaners containing ammonia or bleach with vinegar and baking soda.
  • Replace chemical Insecticides or herbicides, linked to nervous system disorders, with vinegar to kill weeds and peppermint castile soap to repel bugs.
  • Don’t use paint strippers that contain methylene-chloride—banned in Europe, legal here.
  • Replace chemical air fresheners—linked to heart, respiratory, and reproductive problems, breast cancer, diabetes, and more—with fragant indoor plants, such as jasmine, citrus, and eucalyptus. Plants naturally clean the air and reduce your stress.

Now what? We can’t just stop breathing

As dire as this all sounds, air pollution isn’t a one-way ticket to disease. In addition to my advice on reducing home pollution, you can build an arsenal of non-stop pollution-fighting behaviors into your life.

They’re the same behaviors I always recommend. And while they won’t prevent exposure to environmental pollutants, they will help strengthen your body, your immune system and keep you as protected as possible:

  • Get seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
  • Don’t smoke, drink alcohol moderately, limit caffeinated and sugary drinks.
  • Drink water—one-half ounce per pound of body weight per day.
  • Eat only whole, fresh foods—lean meats and poultry, organic fruits and vegetables, unsalted nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy or alternatives like almond or rice milk.
  • Eat good fats like avocado and olive and sesame oils.
  • Eat celery, garlic, raw cacao, cayenne pepper, and eggs.
  • Eat no high-sodium foods, fast food, sugar, processed snacks/meals, or trans fats.
  • De-stress with therapy, meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, deep breathing (in as pollution-free an environment as you can find), and visualization.
  • Be socially active—time with family, friends, and community or cultural events is good medicine.
  • Work up to briskly walking for 30-45 minutes a day, increasing your time, speed, and distance, or do interval and weight training.

That’s your recipe for the best defense against air pollution: the healthiest, strongest, home-made you—ever.


  • Weuve, J., Puett, R., Schwartz, J. et al: “Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution and Cognitive Decline in Older Women.” Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 172 (No. 3), pages 219-227, 2012.
  • “Does Air Pollution Cause Dementia?”
  • World Health Organisation. “Ambient (outdoor) air quality and health” Fact sheet N°313 Updated March 2014
  • S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Particulate Matter – Basic Information”
  • Worldwatch Institute.“Air Pollution Now Threatening Health Worldwide.” May 16 2016.
  • CoolAntarctica. “Human Impacts on Antarctica and Threats to the Environment – Pollution.”

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