The controversy over China’s air quality index isn’t the only news floating around about Beijing’s dismal pollution. Many cyclists have experienced swimming eyes and ragged coughs from being stuck behind a bus at a red light, but did you know that vehicle fumes may also damage brain cells, affect learning and memory, and result in a higher likelihood of autism?
The evidence is circumstantial but worrisome, especially for babies and kids. This year, research teams from Harvard University and Columbia University discovered that:
Breathing normal city air with high levels of traffic exhaust for 90 days (…) can also leave a molecular mark on the genome of a newborn for life.
What’s more, scientific teams from all over the world – including Beijing – found that children living in high emission zones generally did worse on intelligence tests than their clean air counterparts and were more likely to be depressed, anxious, or have attention problems.
Here’s the kicker: scientists at the University of Southern California found that living close to heavy traffic can have an effect on rates of autism.
Reviewing birth records, Dr. Volk and her colleagues calculated that children born to mothers living within 1,000 feet of a major road or freeway in Los Angeles, San Francisco or Sacramento were twice as likely to have autism, independent of gender, ethnicity and education level, as well as maternal age, exposure to tobacco smoke or other factors.
I was intrigued enough to some digging. How exactly did places like San Francisco compare to Beijing? I pulled the Air Quality Index (AQI) reading for San Francisco from AirNow, a US government website that provides AQI figures from across the US. The US Embassy’s Twitter page was still down, so I got the Beijing data from a third party site that reposts tweets from their feed.
San Francisco: 82
According to AirNow’s AQI chart, San Francisco scored a “moderate” while Beijing’s air quality falls into the “unhealthy” range. (Not to mention that one day in October when Beijing’s AQI reading was quite literally off the charts.)
My first thought was: “Might as well give up while I’m still lucid, since we’ll all be depressed, brain damaged, forgetful, anxious, and autistic in a few years.” We wish we could tell you there was some new miracle solution for air pollution, but there isn’t. Instead, we can only point you to tried and tested measures like air filtration systems, air pollution masks, and houseplants.
Our very own columnist, Dr. Richard, is a staunch advocate of air pollution education and has a host of useful links and articles on his website. Let’s face it: many of us either don’t have a choice but to be here or don’t want to live anywhere else. Whatever the case, educating ourselves about air pollution and keeping the debate alive is the best defense.