Bushfires can damage our brain

Regardless of where we live, bushfires are becoming an increasingly common feature of our lives and a growing risk factor for cognitive decline. 

Scientists have long known that air pollution contributes to stroke, high blood pressure, heart, lung and kidney disease, Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, cancer and reproductive problems (sperm damage). Air pollution is also one of the top 12 risk factors so far identified for Alzheimer’s. In addition, people with Alzheimer’s who live in areas with high levels of air pollution decline more rapidly, require more frequent hospital admissions and die sooner. Even healthy adults and children score worse on tests of cognition and memory when exposed to high levels of air pollution in the hours, days or weeks prior to testing. 

How does air pollution cause brain damage? Inhaled pollutants enter our bloodstream from our lungs and are then distributed throughout our body to all our organs including our brain. Hence air pollution can give rise to many different diseases, depending on our individual susceptibilities and where the greatest number of particles become lodged. Air pollutants can also enter our brain directly through the cells and nerves in our nose, eyes and mouth. Our nose is a primary target for air pollution, which may be a reason that loss of smell is an early feature of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. A third route by which air pollution travels to the brain is via our gut. Air pollution changes the composition of our gut bacteria, induces chronic inflammation and damages our gut lining so that it becomes more permeable (leaky). This provides another escape route for pollutants to enter our blood or get carried to the brain along a nerve called the vagus.

What can we do to reduce the harms of smoke from bushfires?

The first thing is to recognise that smoke particles can stay in the air for a long time (several weeks to months), travel hundreds of kilometres, and easily enter buildings. Once inside our home, smoke particles (especially what are known as ‘volatile organic compounds’ or VOCs) stick to indoor surfaces: floors, walls, tables and ceilings. At a later time, they can transform back into gases and we unknowingly inhale them. VOCs can also occur with cooking and use of cleaning agents so the last thing we want is added exposure from lingering bushfire smoke. 

Fortunately, scientists from Colorado State University have discovered an easy and effective fix: vacuuming, dusting, mopping and scrubbing — using a non-bleach solution. Cleaning exposed surfaces has been found to permanently lower VOC levels and improve indoor air quality. So for your next health hack, roll up your sleeves and start spring cleaning! 

Air filters can also be useful but they only extract particles from the air and cannot remove VOCs once they attach to surfaces. 

Please forward this email to all your contacts because air pollution is an issue that affects everyone.

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