Monday, 9 January 2017

Doomwatch Returns

As well as a nuclear reactor disaster, the book Brainrack by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1974) also contains a chilling prediction of the effect of pollution by cars:

Social historian Michael Herbert gives a brief but succinct précis of the plot:

“The “hero” of the novel is a scientist Dr Alexander Mawn, who is that familiar science fiction character – the maverick – at odds with the scientific establishment. He believes that an unidentified phenomenon is causing people to suffer from diminished intellectual ability with possible disastrous consequences for society. He calls this “brainrack”.

The result of the “brainrack” results in mistakes and a meltdown by an affected technician at a nuclear power station, where our hero barely escapes with his life. He returns to London. Michael Herbert takes up the story:

“In London Mawn now enjoys renewed credibility with the government and heads a research project which eventually identifies a component in petrol as the cause of “brainrack”. He persuades the government to agree to an experiment in which all traffic in London is banned for four days. After a shaky start the levels of the pollutant start to fall. "

It is a remarkably prescient book, because while the immediate loss of intellectual abilities, even among young children, is not apparent in today’s story, there is a very similar effect in the long term.

This is the story that people who live near major roads have higher rates of dementia. Research published in the Lancet suggests possible causality, although it is a single study, and no precise mechanism has yet been ascertained.

The study suggests that as many as 11% of dementia cases in people living within 50m of a major road could be down to traffic. The analysis suggests 7-11% of dementia cases within 50m of a major road could be caused by traffic.

One of the report authors Dr Hong Chen, from Public Health Ontario, said: "Increasing population growth and urbanisation have placed many people close to heavy traffic, and with widespread exposure to traffic and growing rates of dementia, even a modest effect from near-road exposure could pose a large public health burden.”

The researchers suggest noise, ultrafine particles, nitrogen oxides and particles from tyre-wear may be involved, but as the BBC sounds one note of caution: “However, the study looks only at where people diagnosed with dementia live. It cannot prove that the roads are causing the disease.”

“Brainrack” ends with Mawn addressing a crowd in a car-free London street:

“…Every one of us is going to make a full and final decision. From now on every car owner who starts his engine is going to be fully aware of what he’s doing. There’s no way for him to get out of it”.

“Over the next forty years or so, we’re going to be forced to adjust the whole of our life style – the whole of our technology to cater for millions of adults… who are never going to recover. So present my apologies to the Prime Minister and tell him that the choice is really quite simple. It’s cars or the minds of our children, and God knows which we shall choose.”

This may yet prove to be a prophetic warning, issued over 40 years ago!


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