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Can Deteriorating Environmental Conditions Cause Cognitive Disability?

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Environmental conditions causing mental or cognitive disability was a relatively obscure subject till the recent past. However, of late, researchers are delving deep into environmental factors like air and soil pollution that often lead to neurodegenerative ailments like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Scientists have claimed that cognitive disability arises from a combination of genes and environmental factors. “Indeed”, E. Fuller Torrey, president of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes treatment advances in psychiatry, suggests that “mental illnesses increasingly fall into the realm of environmental health”.

Neuroinflammation, which might lead to cognitive and intellectual disability, occurs as a result of environmental hazards. As a consequence of the rapidly enhancing amalgamation of epidemiology and molecular biology, the role of the environment in the arena of mental illness has acquired a significant position.

In an attempt to investigate the connection between environmentalism and cognition, mental health experts have examined the influence of toxic chemical exposures on cognitive diseases and have opined about its detrimental effects on patients suffering from any kind of intellectual anomaly.

Psycho-Social Studies have pointed out the ill effects of the presence of air and soil pollution on those suffering from cognitive and mental disorders-

It has been recorded that a history of toxic exposure significantly lowered the age of the onset of cognitive decline and intellectual disability.

The presence of heavy metals like mercury in both its organic and inorganic form has been found to cause encephalopathy (declining ability of the brain). In humans, one of the likely sources of organic mercury such as methylmercury is the consumption of contaminated fish. Inhalation of mercury vapor by those working in the felt hat industry is also a matter of concern regarding those who suffer from this occupational hazard.

Groundwater contamination with arsenic is a menace that plagues most parts of West Bengal. It is a major problem and a matter of concern as the presence of Arsenic in water has an ill effect on oxidative metabolism in neurons which in turn has an adverse effect on cognitive ability and personality. The cognitive decline also occurs as a result of chronic exposure to heavy metals like lead.

Problems due to metals like lead may occur long after the duration of the exposure to it. People who have been exposed to lead earlier exhibit a longitudinal decline in cognitive function and are detected with lower brain volumes. Chronic exposure to toluene can also lead to cognitive and behavioral problems by causing neuronal cell death.

Genetic factors, coupled with environmental factors, form the psycho-social reasons that lead to the rapid degeneration of the brain cells which in turn lead to brain dysfunctional diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer’s. Apart from the above-discussed avenue, this paper will also focus its attention on a new perspective which is a significant aspect of the environment and gene dichotomy in matters of cognitive disability.

Eco-anxiety is a phenomenon which is characterized by a severe and a nagging worry regarding changing and uncertain natural environment.

Apart from toxic exposures to the above-mentioned metals, cognitive disability is also caused due to climate change. The American Psychological Association has published a report which has codified how mental health and climate change are related to each other. Several psychologists have warned people citing the ill effects of global environmental threats and the resultant paranoia which is termed as ‘eco-anxiety’.

Eco-anxiety is a phenomenon which is characterized by a severe and a nagging worry regarding changing and uncertain natural environment.

Climate change is observed to have a large scale psychological impact. Not only does extreme weather conditions lead to natural disasters but it also has an impact on mental wellness. Researchers have found out that eco-anxiety may create emotional distress and anxiety about the future, leaving many individuals feeling scared, sad, depressed, numb, helpless and hopeless, frustrated, or angry. We emotionally disassociate from the suffering we inflict on the environment, meaning we separate the psychic cluster of feelings related to global warming and create an amnesia barrier to alleviate mental distress. To disassociate is to split consciousness.

Value-Belief-Norm theory and social-cognitive theory which comprises an egoistic value, social-altruistic value and biospheric value primarily explain why an individual is scared about an environmental issue and what forms the basis of his paranoia. For example, concerns about air pollution could be generated and enhanced by the fact that it could damage one’s lungs (egoistic), is unhealthy for children and the elderly (social-altruistic), or is detrimental to forests (biospheric). These feelings can be summed up as environmental stress and can lead to depression which enhances the onset of Dementia.

One such case of depression resulting in Dementia has been found out in the Asansol region of West Bengal where an elderly patient named Mr Debasis Sen (62 years old) has been detected with Dementia after a prolonged history of Chronic depression for three years consequent to his retirement and his wife’s death.

This phenomenon primarily sums up the major argument of my paper that how genetic factors coupled with environmental factors form the psycho-social reasons that lead to the rapid degeneration of the brain cells, which, in turn, lead to brain dysfunctional diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Whether it is eco-anxiety that leads to depression, or exposure to toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards like air and soil pollution that leads to neurodegenerative ailments, the solution is ensuring sustainable development. The process of sustainable development will curb the menace of environmental hazards and will not only control but also reduce the detrimental effects of environmental pollution and nature abuse on patients suffering from any kind of intellectual anomaly.

Mental health has been included in the list of Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 before which this genre had a bleak perspective in the tabloid of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Consequently, people with cognitive disorders felt excluded from significant developmental programs and initiatives across the world. This step has been recognized as a milestone in the genre of an all-inclusive society which does not discriminate between the abled and the specially-abled.

Many disabled members of our society have expressed their appreciation for this step and have opined that this step has ensured their participation and identification as active members of society who do not have to face the wrath of a judgmental mass. Amidst the 169 targets across the 17 Goals, seven targets have a vivid reference to persons with disabilities. But, how does sustainable development ensure a better life for the mentally impoverished?

First of all, persons with disabilities strongly adhere to the faith that only by utilizing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as a guiding framework in implementing the SDGs, will it be ensured that exclusion and inequality are not perpetuated to them. Thus, it can be rightfully said that including mental health as a priority in the SDGs is the first major step towards creating an inclusive society which does not discriminate against anyone based on their mental health.

Secondly, as Dr Sukanchan Palit has opined in one of his scholarly articles on Environment and Energy Sustainability that “Environmental degradation is at its vicious helm” and only environmental sustainability can save the world from an impending catastrophe because environmental sustainability alone can salvage the living conditions of the mentally insolvent to a great extent.

Environmental engineering and water technology need to reduce the ill effects of such a hazard. Provision for clean drinking water in industrial areas of West Bengal, such as Asansol and Durgapur needs to be taken up as a matter of serious concern. The process of Bioremediation is an integral force of sustainable development goals that have emerged as a plausible solution to the groundwater contamination bane. The Millenium Development goals aim to endeavor in making such industrial cities free from the curse of groundwater contamination which acts as a catalyst to mentally degenerative ailments like Dementia.

A case study carried out in the Benachity area of Durgapur has shown the detrimental effect of arsenic groundwater contamination on an eleven-year-old boy named Sushil Sarkar. Dr Suchismita Neogi, the Sarkars’ family doctor has said that Sushil suffers from learning difficulty owing to arsenic exposure and resultant epigenetic processes and gene-environment interplay.

Most residents of Asansol, Ranigunj, Chittaranjan, and Durgapur are prey to this peril as these are industrial belts that constantly encounter the nuisance of water pollution. The Sustainable Development goals have identified water pollution as an impending doom to human life which needs to be treated and curbed by methods like solid waste management.

Sustainable Development can ensure ecological stability which can reduce climate change and hence treat the problems associated with eco-anxiety. Fundamental human needs such as the availability and quality of air, water, food, and shelter are the ecological foundations of sustainable development. Sustainable Development can act as a major step in curbing or controlling cognitive disability as it can check the environmental factors that aggravate the conditions leading to intellectual disability.

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