Pollution & the Brain

We know pollution can affect our lungs, but what we breath in can enter our blood stream and ultimately hit our brain too. Research has looked at exposure to certain gases prevalent in air pollution and found that these air-pollutants can affect our brains as we age. It is also possible that these pollutants can trigger the immune system causing inflammation. Too much inflammation in the brain can then accelerate degeneration in the brain over time. Cognitive issues from air pollution have been shown in regards to verbal learning, attention skills, short term memory and executive skills. The vast majority of studies have found a very strong link between air pollution and cognitive dysfunction, particularly in relation to sulfur-dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide. Unfortunately air pollution is not only increasing outdoors, but also indoors in certain parts of the world that use biomass fuels for cooking and other household purposes.

A systematic review was conducted in the UK in 2016 by Clifford and colleagues, suggesting that exposure to a range of largely traffic-related pollutants has been associated with quantifiable impairment of brain development in the young and cognitive decline in the elderly. They state that the evidence as a whole suggests that vehicular pollution, at least, contributes to cognitive impairment, adding to pressure on governments and individuals to continue to reduce air pollution. Whilst we can't control the outdoor air directly (although I suggest supporting governments that propose to do something about the mess we have created environmentally), we can control the quality of air within our own homes to a better extent. The following recommendations may be helpful to reduce toxins in your home air.

  1. Invest in an air purifier. If you're allergic to indoor allergens and can't control the source of the problem it may help to use an air purifier. Placed in the most commonly used areas of the house, these devices, in particular ionic purifiers, can help capture some of the irritants that may trigger your symptoms. You're probably not going to be able to remove these allergens completely, but you can cut down on them.
  2. Consider a dehumidifier in damp areas, to help prevent the growth of mould. Ensure that bathrooms, another potential source of mould, are well ventilated as well and scrub off any visible mould that collects in the shower, on fixtures, or walls.
  3. Remove your shoes, get a great floor mat, clean floors. When you enter your home,  you can remove your shoes to avoid bringing in chemicals, pollen, dirt and dust indoors. alternatively make sure you have a great may to really get into those cracks in your shoes and make sure everyone is encouraged to wipe even when not raining or muddy. Another effective method of improving air quality is to clean floors thoroughly and regularly to ensure that you are not breathing in harmful bacteria that may have built up over time.
  4. Cut out smoking indoor. Although fewer people are taking up smoking, it remains a primary cause of dangerous pollutants being breathed in the home. If you smoke, try to ensure that you do so outside, even if you don't have children.
  5. Non-scented products in the house: cleaning products, candles, diffusors, paints etc. Though this is rarely mentioned, the artificial 'fragrance' of various cleaning products and even those nice smelling candles and diffusors, is actually made up of many nasty chemicals. The fragrance of a cleaning product is usually added after it has been manufactured to make it more appealing and 'smell nice' when using it in the home. Try to source cleaning products which are environmentally-friendly and work in exactly the same way as cleaning chemicals but without causing damage to your health.
  6. Cut out aerosols.Aerosols are another dangerous everyday item that, though it may seem impractical, are important to avoid or cut out entirely. At the very least, try to make sure you use aerosols by an open window or open the window for at least an hour after use. Inhaling the harmful chemicals from a deodorant aerosol can cause skin reactions, aggravate allergies and trigger heart problems which can be fatal.
  7. Ventilation. An easy, quick and free way to improve the air quality of a home and although it may sound simple, it is very effective. Simply keep windows open wherever and whenever possible, ensuring that there is a healthy circulation of air at all times. This is of course assuming the air quality outside is better than inside, which should be true in most regions unless you live somewhere particularly built up or near a factory.
  8. Houseplants. An easy and quick way to ensure air quality is through house plants. They work to produce cleaner, fresher air for your home, with very little upkeep (aside from watering).
  9. Clean bedding. Like carpets, bedding holds on to odours, spores and other items that might impact negatively on the quality of the air you breathe. Ensure that bedding is regularly washed.


Clifford, A., Lang, L., Chen, R., Anstey, K. J., & Seaton, A. (2016). Exposure to air pollution and cognitive functioning across the life course--A systematic literature review. Environmental Research, 147, 383-398. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2016.01.018