Copenhagen: Confused? You’re Supposed To Be!

Posted by: michael  :  Category: Factors affecting Brain Health

There are Greenhouse Gasses and there’s Air Pollution. The most famous of the Greenhouse Gasses is undoubtedly Carbon Dioxide (CO2). CO2 is the fifth most abundant naturally occurring gas in the atmosphere and is essential for life on earth. A naturally occurring gas can’t be a pollutant. On the other hand, air pollution the constituents of which include: carbon monoxide; nitric oxide; sulphur dioxide; particulate matter and ozone… kills people.

Regulating CO2 emissions will have minimal impact on air pollution levels although many people have been led to believe it will and believe that’s what the so-called ‘debate’ on global warming is all about.

One could be generous and say that it’s purely coincidental or less generous and say it’s a brilliant piece of marketing… whatever position you take it appears that outside the committed believers and the committed sceptics the public does not seem to be distinguishing between greenhouse gasses and air pollution.

So how has this come about?  Here’s my take on how the confusion has arisen…

Because melting ice-caps and potential sea-level rises are somewhat remote events or possibilities for most people they don’t tend to give rise to strong emotional concerns. Sure there may possibly be more fequent significant weather events in the future but they have been endured before and will be again.

However, there is one scenario with which most people that live in cities are not only familiar but experience daily… air pollution. So up pop regular media footage of polluted cities (particularly those in China) when global warming is mentioned and progressively the link between global warming and air pollution is established in the public mind.

Adding to the confusion the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that carbon pollution, which may global warming, is a danger to public health and welfare… (carbon pollution and global warming are again linked).  

So what has this got to do with brain health?

There is now some research that suggests that air pollution such as is present in many cities can damage the brain. In particular, exposure may be associated with respiratory tract and brain inflammation which in turn could lead to an acceleration of Alzheimer-type symptoms.

But what about CO2?  Do we have to worry about any deleterious health effects as its atmospheric concentration continues to climb?

I don’t have a definitive answer but we can perhaps reach some conclusions by using a common-sense argument.

First let get some perspective… breathing pure oxygen can be fatal. Life is sustained by a mixture of naturally occurring gasses including oxygen, nitrogen, water vapour and carbon dioxide. Inhale a pure concentration of any one of those results in death.

So yes a pure concentration of Carbon Dioxide will not only damage the brain it will result in death. But obviously we are not considering inhaling such concentrations. However, we do know that inhaling very high concentrations can result in acidosis which can sometimes be fatal.

But it is extremely unlikely that such concentrations can be reached – some estimates suggest that present levels would need to be multiplied 30 to 40 times  before they would seriously impact on human health.

So I think we can say that air pollution poses a vastly more serious threat to brain health than does a rise in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

Which brings us back to the beginning… Copenhagen isn’t about cleaning up the air we breathe which most would agree is a very desirable goal.  In fact it’s difficult to work out what it is about.

There seems to be so much politicking and so much focus on power distribution (or re-distribution) – arguing on who will control whom and what it’s difficult to work out whether anyone is really serious and whether in their most private moments they actually believe there is a problem. One would think that if they were really serious then they would propose and support massive cuts in emissions and pump billions of dollars into green energy… but they don’t and they won’t!   

I should state I’m not a climate-change sceptic. My position is that I have noticed a change in weather patterns in Australia over the last 10 years or so. That said I feel we need a much longer period of record before we can arrive at even tentative conclusions on climate change.

However, I do strongly feel (focusing on human health and putting the reality or otherwise of climate change and global warming aside) that we should greatly reduce the amount of rubbish we deposit in the atmosphere. And I’m referring primarily to air pollution (of which CO2 is admittedly a component).

The often ignored fact is that many western countries already have Clean Air acts which they only half-heartedly enforce. Maybe one outcome from Copenhagen might be for developed countries to tighten and more strictly enforce existing regulations and for developing countries to implement and enforce clean air regulations.  

If we continue to abuse the atmosphere commonsense tells us the will upset the global balance in the atmosphere and at some critical point (s) the atmosphere will seek to adjust that balance and relieve any stresses the imbalance creates in its own way.   

And we might not like the result!

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