Robert Lee Hotz of the Wall Street Journal, of all places, put it best: "Congested cities are fast becoming test tubes for scientists studying the impact of traffic fumes on the brain."
And what are these researchers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Boston, New York, North Carolina, Beijing, Poland and the Netherlands finding? That exposure to air pollution, particularly to vehicle exhaust, can be linked to brain damage, anxiety, depression, attention problems and autism, and also possibly heighten the risk of Alzheimer's disease and speed the effects of Parkinson's disease.
Cars and trucks are cleaner than they were in 1970, but motorists are spending much more time behind the wheel stuck in traffic, as anyone in Orange County making the commute to, well, just about anywhere knows.
Overexposure to polluted air has long been associated with asthma and higher rates of heart disease, cancer and respiratory illness. But new public-health studies and laboratory experiments suggest that, at every stage of life, traffic fumes exact a measurable toll on mental capacity, intelligence and emotional stability, the Journal reports.
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"There is real cause for concern," neurochemist Annette Kirshner at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina reportedly says."But we ought to proceed with caution."
The NIEHS is part of the National Institutes of Health, and both are partners--along with the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention--in the National Children's Study led by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development.
The research, which includes findings from the Los Angeles-Ventura Study Center, has already found children born to mothers in high pollution areas are much more likely to develop autism. Independent of gender, ethnicity and education levels, children born to mother residing within 1,000 feet of major roads or freeways in LA, San Francisco or Sacramento are twice as likely to have autism, the study suggests.
Meanwhile, researchers in Boston have discovered older men and women long exposed to higher levels of traffic-related particles suffer memory and reasoning problems that effectively add five years to their mental age.