It’s hard to tell whether I’m crazy or not.

A few new studies have come to my attention. They all indicate that I should get the fuck out of this basin of smog as soon as I can.

The problem is called PM2.5—particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in size. New research has shown that breathing this shit for a long period of time causes physical changes to the hippocampus, specifically shortened dendrites of decreased complexity. This is associated with impaired learning and memory; one of the hippocampus’ main jobs is moving new information from short-term memory to long-term storage.

The reason that PM2.5, or “fine particulate matter”, is of concern is that it is small enough to cross the air-blood barrier in the brain and travel to various tissues.

But the study was done on mice. What about humans?

Turns out, the study was prompted by findings by Mexican scientists. They examined the brains of accident victims—children and young adults—from Mexico City (which has terrible air pollution) and Veracruz (which has relatively cleaner air). They found that the brains from Mexico city “showed more extensive inflammation, oxidized DNA and other pathological markers of Alzheimer’s disease.”

All right. But what about long-term effects?

A 2010 study involving 680 men linked black carbon emissions (a marker of traffic-related air pollution) with impaired cognitive function. Even when their scores were adjusted to compensate for social and educational differences, the men who lived in areas with heavier air pollution performed worse on cognitive tests than those who didn’t.

I’ve written before about how important brain health is to me. I consider my brain to be me. And it’s not even just me, but my universe. It’s the mechanism I use to see and understand the world, and it’s my library of all my experiences and memories. Few things are more important to me.

I now have to carefully consider the real implications of this information. The correlation and causation seem to be there—but how much would I really be affected? Am I willing to be affected at all? How much have I already been affected?

The real question is: am I being obsessive about this? Is it irrational that I want to get out of here within a few years because of this, in spite of the fact that I otherwise love living here?

One thing this new information has really fucked up is my bike rides. I used to take 20-mile rides a few times a week. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea anymore.

I can just add this to the list of 218 other very important things I need to work out very quickly.

You can be paranoid about some things all of the time, or everything some of the time, but you can’t be paranoid about everything all of the time. Unless you’re me.

The newest thing I’m paranoid about is touching electrical cables (especially extension cords and Christmas lights) because their PVC insulation is laced with lead. There’s enough of it in there that most of these things carry a warning that the user should wash his/her hands after handling the cable. This is enough to get me wondering what other cables and wires in my place are shedding lead dust all day long, exposing me to a chronic microdose of the stuff, slowly killing my brain and making me hard of hearing.

I’ve never been examined by a mental health expert—I couldn’t be, anyway, because I’d never talk about the really important things—but one thing this expert would find out about me is that I am probably a closet hypochondriac.

One class of things I’m paranoid about is chemicals. Let me give you the short list of chemicals I obsessively avoid:

  • BPA—which means avoiding plastic containers in general, and canned food especially. I also avoid touching thermal receipts.
  • Polystyrene—I hate eating from styrofoam containers. Little flecks of that stuff get into your food whe you scrape at the sides of it with your plastic spoon. Some of it dissolves into hot food or boiling water.
  • Car exhaust—self-explanatory. Especially hard to avoid when I’m biking through traffic, and actually impossible to avoid in a city altogether.
  • Aerosolized solvents—spray paint, workable fixative, etc.

What do all these toxins have in common? They affect (or are purported to affect) the central nervous system, especially the brain. What I’m really paranoid about is losing the brain cells I’ve got left.

I’m 27. This is the year my brain stops growing and starts shrinking. My brain is in peak condition right now. It will never again be able to learn as fast as it can now, or remember facts and events as efficiently as it does this year. It will never be this good again.

I’m also an atheist. My brain is my soul. Every aspect of my personality, all of the memories and neuroses and fetishes and obsessions, all the music I’ve memorized, all the books I’ve read, all my intellect, all my individuality, is stored in a wet lump of low-voltage matter inside my skull.

But it’s more than that. My understanding of the world is my microcosm, my perception of the world outside my head is my private theater, and for me it is all that will ever exist. My being and my world are restricted by the chemical functionality of my brain.

It is true: Man is the microcosm:
I am my world.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein

If I retard my brain with heavy metals or endocrine disruptors or solvents, I am retarding my world.

Thus the terror I experience at the thought of a low, steady intake of chemicals that will alter the function of my brain. It’s at the point now where I can look at tap water in a glass and wonder how many parts per million are poison.

This, from a guy who’s passionate about pale ale and Irish whiskey.

I wish I could go on about how silly all this is, about how exeedingly paranoid my worries are, but I can’t. I can’t step outside this mindset. If I could, I would have a foothold out of it. But I don’t. The best I can do right now is find compromises and just fight the paranoia with brute force, making myself do things I absolutely do not want to do—like eat canned tomatoes.

Even if all the rest of the world told me not to worry about it, the thought still lingers: what if they’re wrong?

Our mind is all we’ve got. Not that it won’t lead us astray sometimes, but we still have to analyze things out within ourselves.

—Bobby Fischer

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