Friday, February 10, 2017

Bad air

For those of us who live in large metropolitan areas or smaller industrial cities, will the Trump administration be harmful to our health? The new president, it appears, intends to gut environmental regulations, including the Clean Air Act of 1990. In Los Angeles, long known for its dubious air quality, things may get a good deal worse.
In a January 31 Los Angeles Times article, Melissa Healy reported on a correlation between extensive exposure to smog and dementia, particularly among older women. For this demographic, Healy noted, “breathing air that is heavily polluted by vehicle exhaust and other sources of fine particulates nearly doubles the likelihood of developing dementia.” And for women who carry the APOE4 gene, which makes it more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, the combination of genetics and environment can be toxic, hastening the disease’s progress. Unlike diseases such as asthma, where the role of poor air quality is well understood, much still needs to be learned how air pollution can lead to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
The study that Healy drew on appeared in the journal Translational Psychiatry. She noted that three biomedical research methods were deployed, and all revealed high levels of “very fine air particles” caused by cars and other vehicles. Smog isn’t the only culprit. Proximity to power plants also can be a factor, as can frequent exposure to the burning of wood. As Healy noted, studies involving laboratory mice breathing polluted air in ten freeway locations in Los Angeles led to clumps of amyloid plaque, the protein deposits in the brain that are a common feature of Alzheimer’s.
A study published in 2011 in the British medical journal The Lancet found that people living near congested highways were at far greater risk of having a stroke or developing Alzheimer’s than people who didn’t. Could the people who live in the shadow of a busy highway do so because they can’t afford to live elsewhere? As Healy reported, the noted Alzheimer’s researcher Dr. Samuel Gandy at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York was the first to determine that air pollution could lead to “cell death, inflammation and the build-up of amyloid protein” in the brains of mice.
This is not the first time that a presidential administration has been indifferent, even hostile, to science. Ronald Reagan, I submit, initiated the trend. The Gipper deserves credit for his role, opposite Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, in bringing the decades-long Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. But each of his Republican successors, with the exception of the honorable George H.W. Bush, has seemed not only uninterested in science but hostile to it. Global warming a hoax? How so? Who could stage such a “hoax”? Who would benefit from it? Some international cabal? The Democratic Party? I don’t think so. As a friend of mine commented during the disputed 2000 election, “The Democrats can’t even steal an election!” As far as I can tell, staging global warming is way beyond the Democrats’ portfolio.
What the Trump administration is really attacking is the values of the Enlightenment, the era that began in the seventeenth century and, in America, reached full flower in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. Unlike in earlier centuries, in other nations, there was no magical thinking in the founding of the United States. “Alternative facts,” as Trump’s spokewoman Kellyanne Conway suggested, are not facts. Their correct names are “lies.” If you don’t believe me, consult the works of George Orwell. Start with his essay “Politics and the English language,” and, if you can stomach it, take on his bleak dystopian novel 1984. It’s hard not to feel that the president of the United States is living in an alternative universe, in which facts are fungible, if not just made up out of full cloth.

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