Wednesday, November 16, 2011

To Breathe or Not to Breathe

Exhaust fumes kill brain cells! 

It’s not as if we didn’t know.  Or that we somehow felt OK about sucking in diesel vapors and billows of petroleum rich emissions while we sat stacked up at the toll plaza with James Taylor on the airwaves.  Damn!  This traffic jam! 

But now, the Wall Street Journal reports that commuters in high traffic corridors are spending record amounts of time inhaling tailpipe gases.  In fact, drivers traveling the 10-worst U.S. traffic corridors each year spend an average of 140 hours breathing in and out behind the wheel, idling in traffic.  That’s a month’s worth of grey matter, up in smoke.   

And it’s not just 'rush-hour' congestion anymore, what with midday and overnight traffic jams accounting for almost 40% of total delays.  The wait in line for an average commuter rose to 34 hours in 2010.  In the 15 largest urban areas, commuters wasted 52 hours every year, each burning 25 extra gallons of gasoline.   

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. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any synapses or cells to spare. 

And guess what?  The Washington, D.C., area had the most wasted hours for commuters last year, the most exhaust fumes taken in, the greatest number of brain cells compromised and the maximum number of synapses snapped. 

It all adds up, doesn’t it?   

Rick Perry can’t remember the government agencies he’d scrap if elected president:  Let’s see…Education, Commerce, and…doh!   

Herman Cain has “so many things twirling around in his brain” that Libya doesn’t sound familiar.   

Perry said, “Oops;” Cain swatted gnats.  They could have blamed their campaign dampening brain freezes on traffic in the beltway!  After all, these new public-health studies and laboratory experiments suggest that traffic fumes exact a measurable toll on mental capacity, intelligence and emotional stability.   

Congressional gridlock may be due to rush hour gridlock!   

Oh, right.  Perry and Cain aren’t in Washington.  Traffic must be horrible on the campaign trail. 

Remember the research that cautioned us against buying a car built on a Monday?  The hangover effect:  Assembly line workers needed a full workday to recover from their weekend.  The cars they put together on Mondays manifested problems reflecting their diminished mental capacities, maybe the residual effects of too many brews. 

This new research could be extrapolated to conclude that bills passing Congress on Tuesdays may be similarly suspect:  Tuesday is the busiest morning peak period for traffic backups and fume inspiration.  Woozy legislators make cloudy laws.   

Pedestrians and bicyclists need also beware:  The Journal reviews recent studies that show breathing street-level fumes for just 30 minutes can intensify electrical activity in regions of the brain responsible for behavior, personality, and decision-making.  No question where this will end up ~ in the courtroom.  It’s the next Twinkie defense!  Air pollution made me do it.  No wonder road rage is on the rise. 

Scientists say they don’t know yet whether regular commuters breathing heavy traffic fumes suffer any lasting brain effect, but it seems likely.  Just look around the office.  You can spot the long-term, long-range commuters.  They’re the ones with the hazy eyes, vague expressions, and crabby attitudes.  They can’t complete a sentence without taking a swig of their dark roast Kona and gasping like Perry Mason.  Best to steer clear until research provides us a better antidote than caffeine.  It may be exacerbating the syndrome. 

The scary thing is exhaust fumes can extend farther from roadways than once thought.  Traffic fumes from some major L.A. freeways for example, reached as far as 1.5 miles downwind—10 times farther than previously believed.  It’s creeping into homes, parks, even schools. 

Children in areas affected by high levels of emissions scored more poorly on intelligence tests, were more prone to depression, anxiety, attention problems, and were twice as likely to have autism as children growing up in cleaner air. 

Thank Heaven researchers are exploring ways to alleviate traffic and its toxic exhaust.  Some simple solutions ~ E-Z pass carpool lanes, rerouting cars away from high congestions areas ~ already provide significant improvement.  

Children need their brain cells!  They have a long way to go.   

You and I may just have to hold our breath.