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Neurotoxins in the environment are damaging human brain health – and more frequent fires and floods may make the problem worse
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Neurotoxins in the environment are damaging human brain health – and more frequent fires and floods may make the problem worse

Blue-green algae bloom on surface of lake with trees in the distance.


In the summer 2021, a toxic, smokey haze will prevail. Western wildfiresThe heat swept across large areas of the United States, while hurricanes caused extensive flooding in the eastern and southern U.S. AirNowBe warned hazardous conditionsOn the U.S. East Coast, from Western forest fires 3,000 mi away, with recommendations for staying indoors

Journalists reported the immediate consequences of homes and properties being destroyed and lives lost, but other insidious dangers were not noticed. These are things few people know. climate change-fueled disasters – both fires and floods – could adversely affect human healthIn longer-term strategies.

I’m a scientist-authorThe study of the relationship between environmental factors and the development neurological disorders is called the subject of my recent book. My research on this topicThis adds to the growing body of evidence that more frequent environmental disastersMay be increasing human exposure to neurotoxins.

Neurotoxic smoke

Many scientists have found links between these two phenomena. air pollutionAvailable in many forms, including from forest fire smoke, and an increased likelihood and prevalence of adverse health consequences, including brain diseases.

Wildfire smoke is a combination of countless noxious chemical compounds. Flammable fires across the warming planet – from California to Greece and Australia – are adding dangerous particulate matter to the atmosphere that includes neurotoxic heavy metalssuch as mercury and lead, cadmium, and manganese nanoparticles. These toxinsThey add to the environmental burden of pollutants emitted in factories, power stations, trucks, automobiles, and other sources.

The greatest potential for health problems comes from minuscule particles, smaller than 2.5 microns – or PM 2.5 (for context, the width of a human hair is typically 50 to 70 microns). This is due to several factors. tiny particles are easily inhaledThey enter the bloodstream through the lungs and circulate throughout the body. In the brain they may inflame the microglial cells, the brain’s defensive cells, causing harm to neurons instead of protecting them. These tiny particles could cause damage to brain cells or neurons, according to research. promoting inflammation. Conditions such as brain inflammation can lead to brain inflammation like dementiaAnd Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder for adults.

Additionally, prenatalAnd early-life exposureChildren who are exposed to air pollution have an increased chance of developing autism spectrum disorder. Research suggests that air pollution exposureThese critical times, especially in the third trimester and the first few weeks of life, are particularly important. may impair normal neural development.

Waterborne neurotoxins

As part of my book research I researched possible links between environmental neurotoxins, and related health effects in Finland. I searched for unique environmental factors that might explain the high rate of fatal dementia observed in Finland over the past ten years. water pollution – exacerbated by flooding, use of fertilizer and higher water temperatures – may be affecting brain health.

I was shocked to see the extent of environmental concerns in Finland. blue-green algae in waterwaysIt stood out to me. Though it’s commonly called algae, blue-green algae is actually a type of bacteria called cyanobacteria. These harmful microorganisms thrive in warm waterways where excess nutrients, especially phosphorus, are poured into fresh or brackish water. It produces cyanotoxins.

Blue-green algae bloom on surface of lake with trees in the distance.

Blue-green algae can cause harmful blooms in lakes or ponds that can be toxic for humans and dogs.
Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images

One of these cyanotoxins, β-methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA, is linked to neurodegenerative disorders including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
In particular I was struck by scientists’ finding high levels of BMAA in mollusks and fish found in the Baltic Sea, which could potentially play a role in Finland’s high incidence of dementia, as fish is heavily consumed there.

Blue-green alga is found in rivers, lakes and seas. It is a problem for people, dogs, and wildlife across the U.S., Canada, and around the world. 2020 more than 300 elephants in Botswana diedAfter drinking water that has been contaminated by cyanobacteria which causes these algal blooms, Scientists in Finland have discovered blue-green algae. a quick test to determine whether it is present or not.

Mold neurotoxins

Finland’s warm, humid climate makes it ideal for mold growth. Water-damaged buildings are especially vulnerable. Some species produce mycotoxins, also known as mold toxins. Even at low levels, long-term exposure can cause mycotoxins to be present. serious health hazardsFor both humans and animals.

Mold spores can be inhaled or swallowed easily because they are so small. They can cause chronic inflammation by activating the immune system. Exposure to these spores can lead to chronic inflammation. cognitive impairmentMemory loss, irritability and numbness are some of the symptoms. This is what can happen after flooding in a region of homes or workplaces within weeks.

Mold toxins are especially dangerous ochratoxin AIt can cause inflammation that can damage neurons and brain function. It has been specifically implicated in Parkinson’s disease.

Aerial view of a community in Middlesex County, New Jersey that was flooded by Hurricane Ida, Sept. 2, 2021.
Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A way forward and a reduction in risk

Public education, increased awareness of environmental health issues and public action are the best ways for environmental neurotoxins to be minimized.

People can learn to recognize blue-green alga and avoid boating or swimming near it. Pet owners should also be careful not to let their pets swim near it. Consumers can advocate for better environmental monitoring of water and food sources. Exercise that involves sweating can be beneficial help eliminate neurotoxic substances. Before you go outside, make sure to check the air quality via an app or website. AirNow, a partnership of federal and state, local, and tribal agencies.

If environmental policies aren’t put into place to mitigate the health risks posed by environmental neurotoxins, research suggestsAs toxins rise, we may see an increase in neurodegenerative disorders. Many of these conditions can be labeled as idiopathic or without a known cause. The neurotoxic link is not often considered. often overlooked in American health care. This is due in large part to the fact that environmental health is not taught in medical education. This can lead to a lack awareness about possible diagnoses for environmental illnesses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently reevaluatingParticulate matter standards are now part of the air quality standards. A new EPA inspector general reportA strategic plan is needed to control harmful algal blossoms. Ohio is a leader in public policy initiatives that target neurotoxic algal blooms. now regulatesCyanotoxins can be found in drinking water. Farmers should not add fertilizer to the ground when it is saturated or rain forecast.

Since climate change may be a driver for rising neurotoxinsHuman health is dependent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving environmental stewardship. This will require strong international efforts as well as domestic interventions from governments around the world. But all of these efforts must begin with a deeper and more widespread understanding of the profound nature of this problem – which should be a universal, nonpartisan concern.

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