How many times a year does your blood pressure or irritability levels rise when in rush-hour traffic. Well there is now science to back up you when you have to take an extra fifteen minutes get yourself together after a stressful car ride home or back to work.

According to a story published in The Wall Street Journal, the reason you may feel the effects of the ride home is as roadways choke on traffic, researchers suspect that the tailpipe exhaust from cars and trucks — especially tiny carbon particles already implicated in heart disease, cancer and respiratory ailments — may also injure brain cells and synapses key to learning and memory.

“There are more and more scientists trying to find whether and why exposure to traffic exhaust can damage the human brain,” says medical epidemiologist Jiu-Chiuan Chen at the University of Southern California who is analyzing the effects of traffic pollution on the brain health of 7,500 women in 22 states. “The human data are very new.”

Even though the amount of traffic and the time spent in traffic are the major factors that determine one’s exposure to the pollution, it’s imperative that drivers understand the risks of consistent exposure. The average driver in one of America’s twenty largest cities spends around 140 hours in traffic. Recent studies observed breathing street-level fumes for just 30 minutes can intensify electrical activity in brain regions responsible for behavior, personality and decision-making, changes that are suggestive of stress.

African Americans are particularly at risk for the potentially damaging effects of air pollution as over fifty-percent of the population live in urban centers. Children in areas affected by high levels of emissions, on average, scored more poorly on intelligence tests and were more prone to depression, anxiety and attention problems than children growing up in cleaner air.

These fumes also affect women’s wombs. According to the study, 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, independent of gender, ethnicity and education level, as well as maternal age, exposure to tobacco smoke or other factors African American women lead the industrialized world in infant mortality.

“The evidence is growing that air pollution can affect the brain,” says medical epidemiologist Heather Volk at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. “We may be starting to realize the effects are broader than we realized.”

Sound-off: How long will you spend in traffic today? Do you ever feel different after a long day in traffic?


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