As if it wasn’t bad enough that particulate matter from diesel exhaust causes a range of respiratory problems including 15,000 premature deaths each year, new research shows that even short-term exposure to nanoparticles found in diesel fumes can affect brain function.
Nanoparticles can travel to the brain via the olfactory nerve, where they could cause an oxidative stress response in the region of the brain critical to information processing.
Researchers placed subjects in a room with either clean air or diesel fumes (similar to a busy street), and used a electro- encephalograph (EEG) to measure brain response. Subjects breathing the sooty air showed a stress response in the brain’s cortex within 30 minutes, which continued even after they left the room.
The researchers hypothesize that the effects of diesel exhaust could be caused by nanoparticles slowly penetrating the brain or affecting brain signaling. Oxidative stress has also been linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and long-term exposure to these fumes conceivably could decrease cognitive function, they write.
This is bad news for an especially susceptible population—children—who spend significant amounts of time in diesel buses. According to the EPA, twenty-four million children ride in diesel school buses each day, amounting to about one half-hour per child. Research has also shown that the level of diesel exhaust inside school buses is substantially higher than outside. School districts and municipalities can mitigate this issue by retrofitting buses with newer emissions control devices, avoiding unnecessary idling, replacing the oldest buses, and using biodiesel to reduce particulate emissions.
Luckily for the rest of us, the US has the highest emissions standards in the world for passenger cars, and a comparatively low use of diesel vehicles. The new clean diesels on the market now do not produce the same dirty exhaust as older models.
But until our nation’s fleets get upgraded, it’s going to irritate me even more when a garbage truck rolls by.
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Source: ES&T (Mar. 26, 2008): Your brain on diesel fumes