Some of the guidelines in the Clean Air Act that were passed in 1971 to establish “safe” levels of air pollution in the U.S. are still used today, according to Inside Climate News. But a new study suggests that those levels of pollution may be affecting the brain development of children exposed to them.
The study came from researchers at the Keck School of Medicine at USC and worked with 9,497 participants between 2016 and 2018 to establish a baseline MRI for children between 9 and 10 years old. Two years later, another MRI was conducted, looking for changes in brain function. Researchers then analyzed environmental data from the EPA to establish the air quality within half a mile of each child’s home.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, children exposed to “legally acceptable” levels of air pollution showed signs of altered brain connectivity during a crucial time in their adolescent development.
Why is this concerning?
During the study, researchers focused on three networks in children’s brains that undergo development during adolescence. The salience network governs how our brain focuses on external stimuli. The frontoparietal network controls executive functions like memory and how quickly we can process things. And finally, the default mode network handles how we daydream.
Researchers noted when these networks formed too many or too few connections in the participants, that could put them at a higher risk of suffering from mental health disorders as adults.
These findings show “the long shadow that air pollution leaves on our health early in our lives,” Robbie Parks, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, said.
What’s being done about it?
There is some good news. In 2021, the World Health Organization lowered its standard for acceptable levels of fine particulate matter pollution. It has also already proposed lowering that number again to reflect the latest health data. That’s a definite step in the right direction.
But more needs to be done, and researchers with the study hope that their new findings can be a catalyst for that. Unlike other studies, which measure higher levels of air pollution’s effects on children, this study is directly challenging the current standard for “safe” pollution.
“A lot of previous studies have looked at higher levels of air pollution,” Megan Herting, an associate professor of public health sciences at USC and the study’s senior author, said. “We need cleaner air even beyond what we thought was working before.”
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