Pollution and health

Pollution may be having a far greater and longer lasting effect on our health than we realised. New research, while not yet conclusive, indicates potentially strong links with obesity, intelligence, autism and cancer. Consumers may demand action and governments may get tough on polluters.

What is changing?
Research in Spain examined a potential link between foetal exposure to the pesticide hexachlorobenzene and obesity. Having measured the levels of the pesticide in umbilical cords of 403 children they then compared obesity levels at aged 6. Those with the highest exposure were more than twice as likely to be obese than those with lower exposure. Research exposing mice to different levels of air pollution, which was the equivalent to exposing a child from being a toddler to late adolescence, indicated a significant increase in likelihood of Type 2 diabetes and increased levels of fat in blood cells. This included exposure to particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less, which can penetrate deep within biological systems.

Another research project monitored pregnant women’s exposure to air pollution in low income areas of Manhattan and the subsequent cognitive development of their children. It indicated a link between high exposure and lower IQ, whereby those with the highest levels of exposure had IQ levels 4.3-4.6 points lower than those with lowest exposure. These differences included taking other variables into consideration.

A project in California examined 959 children born in 1994, of whom 284 were subsequently diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. Those born in areas of high air pollution, especially mercury cadmium, nickel, trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride, had a 50% greater likelihood of a diagnosis.

Why is this important?
The direct link and therefore causation are not fully clear yet, but these findings will change the nature of environment and public health debates, regulation and responses, as well as potentially affecting house prices and driving demand for clean technologies.

Consumers already use maps of local services etc to decide where to move; pollution levels may be next as well as the quality of the schools. People may also want to have personal air quality indicators, as well as air cleaning capabilities in their cars and homes. Some years ago a high tech buggy provided a clean air bubble for the child inside, but these problems arise from foetal exposure via the mother. Clean air will become a more persistent topic if the damage is directly personal.

Companies that pollute may be on the receiving end of tough action. Consumers may take to the streets – see the ST alert on Tax protests, or cyber space as in the WikiLeaks ‘hactivisim’ responses seen recently. In China the government is taking a tough stance – companies that pollute will be refused loans or have them foreclosed. Vehicle emissions will need to get cleaner and reduce sharply. Smog in Hong Kong is becoming a major issue to the point that people are leaving for cleaner cities. As a result, Hong Kong will soon require that all new cars be hybrids, to combat growing pollution levels and car park expansion.

Truckers in the US often leave engines idling to maintain power, support air-conditioning and microwaves etc during their 10 hour rest periods. This practice produces about 11 million tons of CO2 and about 200,000 tons of NOx, plus 5000 tons of particulate matter. Several companies providing a new form of auxiliary power systems for trucks which produce no emissions have seen their business grow dramatically against a back ground of truck sales falling 50% and sales of conventional power systems falling 70%.

The public health debate around obesity has implicitly ‘blamed’ those who are obese. We may need to rethink. But also the debate about education, achievement and school performance in inner city areas, if high pollution means that residents may have lower IQs and therefore lower attainment as a result. The costs of treating and caring for people with long term health problems such as obesity and diabetes but also conditions such as autism are high; demand for skills is increasing, the need to improve attainment rising. The benefits of cleaning up our cities and reducing health costs and making education budgets more effective may be a more persuasive argument than ‘simply saving the planet’.

Emerging economy cities are seeing huge growth in car numbers. Given the very high pollution levels in many Asian cities – well above recommended levels, the link between air pollution and health and intelligence may convince them to take more action on numbers of and the types of cars. Consumers may also be more willing to change behaviour, indeed may put pressure on local and national governments to act.

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