The Mental Toll of Tailpipe Exhaust

By Emily Main

Next time you find yourself stuck in traffic and thinking you must be either crazy or stupid, or both, you may just be right on both counts. There's a growing body of scientific evidence showing that tailpipe exhaust from all those cars around you can not only lead to respiratory problems, cancer, and heart disease, but also takes a measurable toll on mental capacity, intelligence, and emotional stability.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week on a number of studies that are analyzing the impact of traffic exhaust on mental capacity, intelligence, and emotional stability. Here are a few highlights from some of the research out there:

• A recent study from the Netherlands found that breathing street-level fumes for just 30 minutes can intensify electrical activity in the brain regions responsible for behavior, personality, and decision making.

• Two groups of scientists from Columbia University and Harvard have found that breathing normal city air containing high levels of traffic exhaust for 90 days can alter genetic activity in the elderly and in newborns.

• Scientists in the U.S., China, and Poland have conducted studies on children showing that those living in areas with high traffic pollution scored lower on intelligence tests and were more prone to depression, anxiety, and attention problems than children growing up in areas with cleaner air.

• University of Southern California researchers revealed earlier this year that children born to mothers living within 1,000 feet of a major road or freeway in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Sacramento were twice as likely to have autism, even after the study's authors controlled for other known autism risk factors.

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Scientists are still urging people to take these results with a grain of salt, since it's difficult to show concrete links between tailpipe exhaust and brain activity. But they suspect that all that congestion-related pollution could be increasing inflammation or altering the neurochemical pathways in our brains that are responsible for learning and memory.

Regardless of how strong the scientific evidence is, there are still things you can do to lessen your exposure to traffic pollution:

• Don’t get caught in traffic. All of us would benefit from spending less time in traffic—and personally helping to minimize traffic and traffic-related pollution by driving less. Try commuting earlier or later in the day if you can, thus avoiding peak congestion. Explore the possibility of telecommuting, even if it's just for one day a week. Plan to run errands either before or after peak traffic hours. And walk or ride your bike whenever possible, avoiding highly trafficked roads. If your road involves tolls, sign up for an E-Z Pass that allows you to avoid idling in congested tollbooth lines.

• Exercise away from exhaust fumes. Avoid running or biking alongside major roadways and stick to residential streets or (well-lit and roomy) back roads. To get up-to-date reports on the air quality in your area before you work out, check out

• Turn on the air. If you find yourself stuck in heavy traffic, turn on the AC, and make sure to push the "recirculate" button to halt the flow of air coming in from outside.

• Munch on colorful fruits and veggies. They're full of antioxidants that can protect your heart and your brain from air-pollution-related damage.

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Note: The Rodale Research Feed features new research findings that may include preliminary or unconfirmed results. Check with a healthcare provider, or an appropriate advisor you trust, before making any significant changes based on these reports.

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