(Last Updated On: October 9, 2022)

How Does Air Pollution Affect Your Brain

5 min read

When you think about air pollution, you likely think about all the bad air outside – the smoke, the smog, the car and industrial emissions. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the concentration of pollutants indoors can be two to five times higher than outdoors. And since it’s estimated that Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, it’s important the air you’re breathing is as clean as possible. Those statistics are reason enough to consider buying an air purifier for your home.

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It’s no secret that over time air pollution can cause significant physical health problems. It’s been proven to increase the risk of respiratory illnesses, heart disease and lung cancer. But emerging research shows that poor air quality may also cause a notable problem for our brains. Studies have shown exposure to high levels of air pollution may increase an adult’s risk of cognitive decline and could damage cognitive abilities in children.

What is Particulate Matter?

Concerns about air pollution aren’t new – they date back to ancient Rome. The Romans were the first group of people in Europe to use different metals to mass produce coins, household items and water pipes. Mining and smelting the metals released all types of pollutants into the air. But releasing toxins into the air didn’t stop with the Romans – it continues today to varying degrees in countries across the globe.

So much of what enters into the air is particulate matter. Particulate matter (PM) or particle pollution is a mix of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air. PM comes in all shapes and sizes, is made up of hundreds of different chemicals and is emitted from things like vehicles, power and manufacturing plants, construction sites, smokestacks, and fires. Things like dirt, dust, smoke, or soot are large and dark enough that we can see them. Other things that contribute to particulate matter are so small you can only see them using a microscope.

Particulate matter can be inhaled and the smaller the particle, the deeper it goes into your body. Larger pieces of PM may linger in your nose. Fine particulate matter can get deep inside your lungs and bloodstream and poses the greatest risk. Over time and through research, experts have realized particulate matter can cause serious physical health problems. But now there is growing research that it also affects our cognitive ability.

How Does Air Pollution Affect Our Brains?

As time has passed, more interest, attention and awareness have been brought to the correlation between air pollution and brain function. Research has shown even short-term exposure to fine particulate matter can affect the way our brains perform, as well as our ability to work.

Fine particulate matter can travel directly to the brain by way of the olfactory nerve. Many scientists believe the biggest concern is with heavy metals. When particles from metal reach the brain, they can directly damage neurons and disrupt the regulation of immune cells. Because the brain mistakes the particulate matter for pathogens, it releases chemicals to kill them. The chemicals can accumulate and cause inflammation. Chronic inflammation in the brain has been determined to be a factor in killing cells in the central nervous system. It’s also been shown to be a factor in dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Some studies show cognition problems related to air pollution tend to be more prevalent in people 50 and younger. Some studies show a connection between a child’s exposure to air pollution and their ability to learn.  One study looking at the connection between dementia and air pollution found even short-term exposure to air pollution led to a noticeable decline in memory and thinking. 

The studies show day to day function can be affected by air pollution, with memory being the biggest sufferer. What you’re breathing in can cause reduced productivity – so your brain fog (as we often call it) may actually be a result of outdoor smog.

Air Pollution, Our Brains and Baseball

As we’ve noted, there are several studies that have been conducted on air pollution and its effects on the brain over the past decade. The most interesting though may be one that was done with Major League Baseball (MLB) umpires. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/698728 You may not always agree with their calls behind the plate, but we can all at least agree that MLB umpires are highly skilled and laser focused when doing their jobs.

In 2018, researchers decided to analyze pitch tracking data from MLB with air quality data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at baseball stadiums all over the United States. They wanted to see what, if any, effect air quality has on cognition in mentally taxing jobs. Since MLB umpires work in different cities throughout the season, it was easy to study calls made by the same umpires in different places.

MLB uses a multi-camera system in ballparks to track the trajectory of each pitch, so researchers could evaluate an umpire’s mistake within two inches or less. They then would compare blown pitch calls with the stadium’s air quality. The result: the higher the level of certain pollutants in the air, the worse the calls were. Specifically, high levels of carbon monoxide and fine particulates translated into significantly worse pitch calls and mistakes.

To determine the results, researchers took air quality readings from the nearest air quality station. Nearly all MLB ballparks have a federal air quality monitoring station located within 10 miles. Researchers found that a one part per million increase of carbon monoxide over the course of three hours resulted in an 11.5 percent increase in bad calls. The worst city for blown calls was Los Angeles – which has a high level of pollution.

What is the US Doing to Combat Air Pollution?

Growing concerns about air pollution helped leaders in the United States begin to take air pollution more seriously. In 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act to reduce and control air pollution across the country. The legislation allowed federal and state authorities to regulate and determine safe limits for six major air pollutants. That list now contains 189 air pollution threats.

Since then, the US has reduced carbon monoxide emissions by 90 percent and the emission of particulate matter by 80 percent and it’s believed countless lives have been saved because of these and other regulations. The United States actually has healthier air now than it’s had in decades. But there’s still work to do – air pollution is believed to be the cause of tens of thousands of deaths every year in the U.S. It’s estimated that four in 10 Americans breathe unclean air every day.

What Can I Do About Air Pollution?

It may seem like air pollution is such a large problem, there’s nothing you can do – so why try? But while you may not be able to single handedly clear the skies of Los Angeles or New York City, there are small, simple things you can do to limit the amount of air pollution you are exposed to. 

  • Check the Air Quality
  • In this day and age of technology, you can find the answer to most things on your phone – that includes the air quality. The US government collects air quality data and will give the area you live an air quality index score every day. The higher the number, the worse the air pollution. It’s an easy way to know whether you should spend most of your time inside.
  • Change Up Your Exercise Routine – If you’re an avid outdoor walker or runner, take a path that isn’t near a heavy traffic area. Or exercise when traffic is light. It will cut down on your exposure to emissions from vehicles.
  • Consider Going Electric – Use electric mowers, blowers and weed trimmers. Gas-powered models can send emissions into the air and pollute the air around you.

Invest in an Air Purifier

You can’t control the air outside, but you can control what’s circulating inside your home. Air purifiers are designed to pull the impurities out of the air and send clean, purified air back out. These units work with HEPA filters that pull up to 99.97 of bad particles out of the air. An air purifier can help you and your family breathe easier and stay healthy. If you’re in the market for an air purifier, here are some of our top recommendations:

Alen BreatheSmart 75i True HEPA Air Purifier

The BreatheSmart 75i cleans up to 1300 square feet every 30 minutes. It works with a HEPA filter and has a particle sensor that can let you know the air quality in real time and adjust accordingly. The unit has five fan speeds and is whisper quiet. It sells for between $700 and $800 and has a lifetime warranty. Read our review of the Alen 75i.

Samsung Cube

The Samsung Cube is a great model for smaller spaces. It will cover up to 310 square feet, has a three-stage filtration process and is equipped with a sensor that gives you real time feedback on the air quality in your room. The Cube has a child safety lock, is whisper quiet and energy efficient. The unit will cost between $700 and $800 and comes with a limited one-year warranty. Learn more about the Samsung Cube.

Summary

It’s becoming more apparent that air pollution has a negative impact on our brains and how they function. Studies have shown it can lead to everything from lower test scores in children to bad calls behind the plate in MLB games. More research must be done to determine how and why air pollution causes such cognitive trouble, but there’s enough evidence for scientists and lawmakers to work harder to come up with ways to control and regulate what’s in the air.

Top Pick

Alen BreatheSmart 45i
Air Purifier
$430 Buy Now