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Air Pollution and Brain Health

We spoke with Gareth Brown who is the Policy and Public Affairs Officer for Asthma & Lung UK Scotland. He is also the chair of Healthy Air Scotland – a coalition of charities, third sector organisations s and academics in Scotland working together to amplify clean air messages and campaigns. We asked him what exactly air pollution is and what are some things we can do to make a difference to our exposure.

What is air pollution?

There are lots of definitions for air pollution, but the way I describe it is: any process that involves burning through chemical, biological or physical substances, and what comes from that process is then contamination of our clean air. Air pollution causes an estimated 2,700 deaths alone in Scotland every year and millions more worldwide. It doesn’t matter where you live, air pollution will impact you to some degree, because there’s so many sources and different types of air pollution as well.

Air pollution causes an estimated 2,700 deaths alone in Scotland every year. It is the biggest environmental threat to our public health.

When we mention that air pollution is detrimental to brain health, people are always surprised.

Over the last ten years, there’s been growing evidence of the impact between air pollution and brain health. Also in terms of dementia and stroke, which air pollution can cause as well. It’s the biggest environmental threat to our public health.

Particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) is the most dangerous pollutant to human health because of the size of the particulate matter. They are 2.5 micrograms, which is roughly 100th thinner than a human hair and are found from domestic burning, transport, and energy creation. They can enter the lungs, and because they’re so small they can enter the blood stream which then impacts the brain: inflammation in the brain and decreased oxygen levels.

What is air pollution like in Scotland?

It depends on where you live.

If you live in the city centre, or within a city you’re more likely to be impacted by transport emissions, but you’re actually less likely to cause those transport emissions. The poorest, are less likely to own a car but more impacted by air pollution. If you’re living in the city centre, you’re less likely to have trees in your street and green space that can absorb the different emissions.

Rural areas are also impacted because they’re more likely to be experiencing domestic burning as a need to heat their home, through burning coal or wood. But in a lot of towns and cities, people are burning in their homes purely for aesthetic reasons. That’s where a lot of problems lie with air pollution, because these fumes don’t just stay in your house, they go outside your house through a flume or a chimney, and then impact your local community.

There’s trans-boundary air pollution as well, so not everything is coming purely from within the boundaries of Scotland. We know that Europe can produce a lot of air pollution that flies over. Every so often you hear new stories about Saharan dust coming over, that’s a source of air pollution, and then that’s what we’re breathing here in Scotland.

Researchers have included air pollution in a list of 12 “modifiable” risk factors for dementia – things we can change. What are the things that people can do to protect themselves, or reduce their risk from air pollution?

  • Leave the car at home for very short journeys

  • Walk, cycle, or use public transport where possible

  • Exercise away from roads — in parks or the countryside

  • Always open the window when using strong cleaning products

  • Ventilate your house during winter to avoid mould

  • Avoid burning candles, incense sticks or wood burners indoors

  • If using a wood burner, ventilate especially when refuelling

  • Ensure good ventilation when cooking by opening windows or using an extractor fan

There’s only so much we can personally do about the air we breathe. What are you hoping for the future of air pollution?

Policy makers - Scottish Government and the councils - have a big part to play. Climate change is a public health problem as much as it is a climate emergency. We must make sure when we’re framing things like low emission zones as not just a climate measure. First and foremost it has to be seen as a public health measure, as much as the smoking ban was as well. These are measures that improve human health and reduce the exposure to harmful pollutants in the air. Charities coming together to campaign for cleaner air policies (including Brain Health Scotland) are also important to raise awareness of the problems associated with air pollution.

Thanks for chatting with us Gareth!

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