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Cars in traffic emitting pollution

With May being National Clean Air Month, we spoke to Professor Brian Castellani from our Department of Sociology and the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing about his work on the impact of air pollution on our health.

What is your environmental health research about and what are you particularly studying at the moment?

The environment and its impact on health is on most people’s minds today. Our research is focused on what we call Environ-Mental health. We focus on three key issues:

  1. The first is the impact of air pollution on brain and mental health. People are not aware that air pollution can delay early-life cognitive development and, in later life, lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, cognitive frailty, and Parkinson’s disease.
  2. Second, people may not be aware that air pollution may even contribute to dementia progression and Alzheimer’s deterioration, although the research is in the very early stages. It also might impact the progression of these types of brain diseases at levels of air pollution that are at or lower than EU standards.
  3. Thirdly, some areas obviously have worse air pollution than others creating health inequalities. We look at wider factors that play a part like the entrenched socio-economic deprivation, built environment, transport, and discrimination.

You are the director of InSPIRE. Who are they and how did you become involved in that research consortium?

InSPIRE is a collaboration of academic experts across the UK and Continental Europe whose evidence-based research aims to inform those making policy about Environ-Mental health. Our vision is that the places where people are born, live, work and grow old matter very much in terms of the quality of air they breathe and the brain and mental health they experience. Within our consortium, we examine how exposures such as outdoor air quality and noise pollution combine with living in poor urban areas or near congested roads to negatively impact people's mental and brain health. This includes looking at urban pollution and indoor air quality to school and workplace stressors to deprivation and social media exposure.

How significant have your findings been to influencing policy, particularly around the need to keep air cleaner and areas less polluted?

While public policies have been developed to mitigate the impact of air pollution on a variety of health outcomes – from asthma to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – their value for brain and mental health are only just beginning to be explored. In response, InSPIRE has made several contributions. We published the first comprehensive plan for governments, researchers, and the general public to address the impact of air pollution on brain and mental health, including dementia. We also published one of the first scoping reviews which showed that poor air quality is linked to cognitive decline. Also, we have developed policy briefs for MPs and governments as well as lesson plans for primary and secondary schools on brain health and air quality.

Find out more:

  • Find out about Professor Brian Castellani and his work.
  • Find out more about InSPIRE.
  • Read a paper on how InSPIRE has influenced policy regarding the impact of air pollution on dementia and brain health.
  • Read a review published by InSPIRE on the impact of air quality on cognitive frailty.
  • Watch a video we made on the exposome and brain health.

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