The evidence is mounting that air pollution not only takes a toll on our environment, it also greatly impacts our health in ways that may not seem obvious

On a sunny day with no breeze, you can usually see it: a thin blanket of smog covering the city’s skyline.

And now, we have one more reason to dislike being stuck in rush-hour traffic. According to a recent study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, soot, pavement dust and toxic substances from tailpipe emissions have been linked to brain damage in mice, including signs associated with memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.


This is Your Brain on Air Pollution

Researchers at the University of Southern California pumped air laden with freeway pollution into a simulated commuter environment. They then exposed mice to that air for periods equal to longer commutes (five hours a day, three times a week, for 10 weeks).

When they subsequently examined the brains of the mice, they found damage to the areas responsible for learning and memory. There were also signs of inflammation, and in developing mice, neurons did not grow well.


According to the study’s lead author, Dr. Todd Morgan, "There is suggestive evidence that similar effects may be happening in humans."

His team suggests that limiting freeway pollution exposure, especially for children, is important for brain health. Once we inhale those minute particles in air pollution, it’s believed they can travel through our bloodstream to cause toxic inflammation and contribute to hardening of the arteries.


Other Health Problems Caused by Pollution

Research has already shown that both short- and long-term exposure directly increases the risks of cardiovascular problems such as irregular heart rhythms, reduction of blood supply to the heart, heart attacks and stroke. These findings have prompted the American Heart Association to recommend an urgent need to inform people with (or at high risk of) cardiovascular disease of the dangers associated with air pollution.


Other emerging research has linked air pollution with a more than 20 per cent increased risk of diabetes. It’s been suggested that the chronic body inflammation caused by air pollution contributes to insulin resistance in the body.


Those who suffer from lung conditions, asthma or allergies already know that air pollution can make those conditions worse. So, what can you do to help minimize the potential damage from air pollution?


It’s estimated that more than 5,000 people in Canada die each year as a result of exposure to air pollution. For those at greatest risk (young children, the elderly and those with cardiovascular and respiratory conditions), it’s a good idea to minimize outdoor activities when air quality is poor.

You can check the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), which is updated several times a day and available for areas where the majority of Canadians live.

Your Health with Dr. Rhonda Low airs weekdays during CTV News at Five and CTV News at Six.

Originally published in TV Week. For daily updates, subscribe to the free TV Week e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.