Ninety five per cent of the global population is breathing unsafe air. If this sounds like an overstatement, a study conducted by the China Family Panel Studies and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences will rudely dissuade you from that notion. The study found that air pollution, apart from the by now well-established consequences of poor health, can also impair an individual’s cognitive abilities. Students who sit for exams in cities with a high degree of pollution score poorer grades while the elderly suffer from a significant damage to their intelligence. This means that apart from health issues that in itself are a cause for deep concern, air pollution can also inhibit intelligence and thinking, leading even to neuro-inflammation and neuro-degeneration of humans.

These findings, among many others in the study, are startling and far-reaching in their implications. They point to a future where, if governments around the world do not tackle the issue of rising air pollution in cities, the cost of human loss of performance and potential could be incalculable. What deepens the sense of alarm is that according to the study, air pollution is not correlated to these problems, but a causative factor.

Twenty of the most polluted cities in the world are in developing countries and this deserves the most urgent attention by governments. As observers and experts have repeatedly stressed, there is a need for more stringent policies on air pollution and an inflexible approach to their implementation. In the absence of this imperative, we are wilfully condemning the great human potential to the rampant excesses of thoughtless modernisation.