Fossil fuels are harming our brains: Identifying key messages about the health effects of air pollution from fossil fuels

Aug 28, 2019 | All Categories, Journal Articles

A large body of evidence suggests that a transition away from fossil fuels toward a clean energy economy will dramatically improve public health. Experts have long understood that air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels contributes to many serious health problems, like asthma, heart disease and cancer. More recently, research has shown that air pollution harms our brains and our mental abilities too—especially among children (including unborn babies), the elderly, and people living in poverty.
In our new article , we sought to identify the specific messages about the health effects of air pollution from fossil fuels that are most concerning to people, and to ascertain whether exposure to such messages would increase public support for a transition to clean energy.
To do this, we surveyed a large, demographically-diverse group of American adults (n=1644) and found that information about the harms to older adults’ brains as well as the more well-established harms associated with asthma, heart disease and cancer were of concern, but our participants were most concerned about the potential harm to children’s brains. What’s more, this general pattern of results was largely consistent across a number of partisan and demographic subgroups, even among older adults and those living in low-income households.
After the ranking exercise, Republicans, Independents, and Democrats alike exhibited increases in perceived health harm of air pollution and fossil fuels, a desire for more clean energy, and intention to engage in consumer advocacy to support clean energy.
These findings highlight the importance of organizing new efforts to communicate about the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels on our brains, particularly the neurodevelopmental impacts on babies and children.
The open-access article is available from BMC Public Health, and is featured on the BMC Series blog.
Download to read, here.