María Neira
480,195 views • 12:52

There is something we desperately need that we cannot stop doing: it is breathing. Do you want to try? Why don't we stop breathing together for, let's say, even 10 seconds. Is that OK? Let's do it. Get ready ... OK, now!

Oof, difficult, isn't it?

Well, this is an incredible number that will again take your breath away: seven. Seven what? Seven million premature deaths a year caused by exposure to the bad quality of the air we breathe. Imagine — it's like more than the entire population of my dear Madrid will be wiped out in one year.

And you may ask: Has this information been disclosed? Has this information been publicized, distributed? Well, yes. We have at the moment more than 70,000 scientific papers examining the relationship between air pollution and our health, and the global media has been regularly covering this issue. In fact, in a relatively short period of time, we have come to know that air pollution is having a negative impact on almost all our major organs.

Let's start by the lungs. When we think about air pollution, we always think about the lungs. In fact, every time we take a breath, we are inhaling toxic pollutants, and our poor pink and lovely lungs are suffering all of that.

Over the last 10 years, we have put together a lot of knowledge about what's happened to that, but let me tell you first what is air pollution. OK, air pollution is a very complex mixture of solid particles, liquid droplets and gaseous chemicals. Imagine all of this mixture that might come from sources like household fuel burning or industry or traffic or many other indoor and outdoor sources. And, of course, different sources of pollution will make different mixtures of pollutants. The point is that all of these toxins, they can be combined in different ways. Let's take, for instance, the particulate matter, the PM. It can be a mixture that will include — look at the cocktail here — soil and road dust, sea salt, toxic metals, diesel smog, nitrates and sulfates, and all of this toxic poison, this delicious cocktail, is going through our lungs every day, and we are constantly exposed to this air pollution because we cannot stop breathing. I mean, we can do it for 10 seconds, but no more than that. We cannot stop breathing and, in addition, we need, every day, around 10,000 liters of air.

So we said that we have seven million deaths caused by air pollution every year. Are we panicking? Are we keeping calm? Are we declaring a national disaster, a global emergency? Well, no, and in fact I'm asking myself this question every day: What is happening? But here is something that maybe will force us to react more quickly. Air pollution is not just affecting our lungs. It's affecting our brain as well.

This is our brain. Beautiful. We all have it. We all need it. Hopefully, we all use it —

(Laughter)

some more than others. And in the last 10 years of history, the research about the relationship between air pollution and our brain's health has been increased dramatically, so maybe now our brain is going up in smoke. But let me tell you the evidence, what we know so far about air pollution in our brain.

First, there is an emerging body of evidence regarding the potential harmful effects of air pollutants into our central nervous system. But let's go back to the toxic particles. Remember? We left them at the lungs, enjoying life, polluting everything. But now the smallest of them, they can cross into the bloodstream, and from the bloodstream, pumped by the heart, they can reach the whole body, threatening every organ, including the brain. We used to say that air pollution has no borders, and it's true as well within our bodies, because air pollutants will cross the placental barrier and reach the fetus and alter the cerebral cortex of our children even before they take their first breath.

Second, several studies have suggested that both prenatal and early childhood long-term exposure to air pollution will have a negative influence on neural development, will have lower cognitive test outcomes, and there will be an influence as well, a negative influence, on some behavioral disorders like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In addition to that, some evidence found that exposing our children's and young adults' brains for a long time to particulate matter will cause some reactions like brain inflammation, altering the neural response and [also] leading to the influence of more protein plaques that are accumulating, and those can increase the risks for diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Ironic, isn't it: we are investing in our children's future, we are sending them to school every day to expand their minds, the society is investing in their education, and yet the air they breathe while waiting for the school bus is influencing negatively the development of their brain.

Let's go to the third: What about adults? According to recent scientific evidence, long-term exposure to particulate matter will cause a cognitive decline in study participants as they age. And not only that, if you expose them to long-term, very fine particulate matter, their brain will age more rapidly, and they will have higher odds of having small, silent strokes.

The last one — and I will not give you more evidence, because there is a ton of [it] — some epidemiological studies in animal models have suggested that there might be an increased risk of dementia with sustained exposure to air pollutants.

So, almost everybody is exposed to air pollution. Whether you live in a rural area or an urban area, whether you live in a high-income country or a low-income country, everybody's brains, including yours, are at risk.

As a medical doctor, I have been dedicating the last more than 20 years now of my professional life to raise awareness about public health issues, public health risks, at the World Health Organization, and I know that the knowledge is there and the solutions as well. Sure, some places are more polluted than others, but this a global issue, and no individual, no city, no group, no country, no region will be able to solve it alone. We need very strong commitments and very strong action by everyone: civil society, private sector, even individuals. We all have a role to play. Yes, we need to influence the way we consume, the way we commute, the way we use our energy.

And the good thing is that all of those solutions are available. The question is, if we postpone action by one day, there might be thousands of lives that we will lose, but if we postpone it by one year, we might be losing again seven million. So every policy maker, every politician, needs to be aware of the consequences on human health of postponing their decisions.

In fact, this is not the first time in history that we are confronted with the risks of this invisible killer. This was London in 1952, and as was done in London in the '50s and the '60s, governments and cities, they need to take urgent action to stop the terrible impact of air pollution. Every politician must know that delaying what they call the tough actions, like reducing traffic in cities or investing in public transport and engaging in promoting cycling in cities, investing in renewable energy, promoting cleaner energy for cooking, cooling and transportation and heating are solutions that are very smart, because, in fact, they reduce emissions, they improve air quality in line with WHO standards, which are the standards that will protect ourselves.

So in fact, all politicians that we need these very strong political commitments and political will from, but [we need] all of them now. Those who fail, who postpone action, they have been requested even to defend their position in court. And from now on, no politician will be able to say, "I didn't know."

So the question here is: How many lives, loss of quality of life and losing our brain power are we ready to accept? If the answer is "none," I will request that you, while our brains are still functioning, while we are still intelligent, please exercise your right, put pressure on your politicians and make sure that they take action to stop the sources of air pollution. This is the first thing we need to do to protect yourself and to protect our beautiful brain.

Thank you very much.

(Applause)