Delhi smog. Pic: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier (Flickr CC)

Delhi smog. Pic: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier (Flickr CC)

Recent scientific research on air quality and human health has only underscored how much — and in how many ways — pollution can cause harm and even death. High concentrations of particulate matter in the air result in higher instances of diseases of the heart and lungs, asthma and other respiratory problems.

Asia is most at risk from air pollution

A study at the University of Texas, which singles out China and India as home to places with dangerously poor air quality, estimates that cutting outdoor pollution could save 1.4 million lives.

Air in the Indian city of Delhi is particularly hazardous, with ambient fine particulate matter concentrations 15 times higher than WHO guidelines. Beijing does not fare much better.

About 75 percent of the total number of deaths that could be avoided from cleaner air could come from improving air in some of the most polluted parts of the world like India and China. Those benefits could be as large as many of the other public health things we might like do globally like addressing major diseases like malaria and AIDS.

—Joshua Apte, assistant professor of environmental engineering, University of Texas, Austin (via VOA News)

Principal drivers of deteriorating air quality are coal-burning industry and increased road traffic, which are both causes and symptoms of industrial and economic growth. Somewhat ironically, it is the very pollution caused by growth that may end up stopping growth.

(READ MORE: China’s most polluted province sends its industry overseas)

Such is the argument of former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who now promotes sustainable economic growth focusing on China and the US. Paulson is one of the principal figures responsible for the global financial crisis beginning at the end of the last decade, though he has also been involved in several major projects for nature conservation in both countries.

In his new book, ‘Dealing With China: An Insider Unmasks the New Economic Superpower’, Paulson praises the Chinese government for recognizing and confronting the dangers of climate change, but also warns that the country’s explosive growth, urbanization and pollution are part of an extremely unsustainable system.

Pollution in Beijing, pic: Michael Henley (Flickr CC)

Pollution in Beijing. Pic: Michael Henley (Flickr CC)

Alzheimer’s and pollution threaten a new generation

In addition to the already well established health risks of air pollution, new evidence links toxic air to degenerative brain diseases, namely Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It turns out that ultrafine particles of pollution — at least 36 times finer than a grain of sand — can enter through the nostrils and eventually into the brain, resulting in brain trauma.

Studies of domesticated dogs in Mexico City, which show similar symptoms to humans suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, support the link between particulate matter and degenerative brain disease. The head researcher of the studies, Dr. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas of the University of Montana, found the same kind of damage among the dogs as is found in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients.

From an article on the topic in Mother Jones:

Dogs are also one of only a handful of animal species known to naturally develop Alzheimer’s-type dementia. What Calderón-Garcidueñas discovered more than a decade ago may prove to be the missing element in a long-standing theory of neurodegenerative disease origin. For reasons poorly understood, degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s often reveal themselves in humans through early breakdowns in the olfactory system.

Air quality in the United States, while still hazardous in congested cities like Los Angeles, is on the whole better than it has been in 40 years. Asia’s population centers, on the other hand, are experiencing unprecedented levels of particulate matter pollution. Could China and India’s industrial megacities experience high levels of degenerative brain diseases in the coming years? It is a possibility both countries will have to consider and it does not bode well for future concerns about human or economic health.

(READ MORE: Will a tax on pollution help curb China’s deadly smog?)