Epilepsy rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed in recent years, with more than 3.4 million Americans now suffering from the neurological disorder. The figure stood at less than 2.5 million people as recently as 2010. While most epilepsy cases are unexplained, environmental factors like neuro-chemical pollution could be playing a role in the recent rise.
Epilepsy, which is marked by recurring seizures and can have a big impact on a person’s quality of life, affects three million adults and 470,000 children, which represents 1.2 percent of the country’s population. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, more people today are living with epilepsy than with Parkinson’s disease, autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis combined. While most people with epilepsy are able to live a normal life, some are unable to drive or work. It can be treated, but there is no cure.
It’s also a costly problem, with the direct annual health care costs for each person suffering from the condition ranging from $10,192 for those on the mild end to $47,862; those with severe and uncontrolled seizures incur higher medical costs. Moreover, children who have seizures are more likely to live in poverty, while their parents are more likely to report food insecurity.
Epilepsy has been hard to pin down because it has not been the subject of much assessment in national population studies. Prior to 2010, the last nationwide estimate of epilepsy rates was based on data from the years from 1986 to 1990. That estimate was based solely on the question of how many blackout seizures had occurred in a member of a particular household. The authors of the latest study say that groups that are trying to reduce the prevalence of epilepsy need up-to-date estimates of it based on recent data in order to bring about public health action.
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What could be behind this surge?
Air pollution has long been linked to respiratory, neurodegenerative, and cardiovascular issues, but the relationship between nervous system diseases and air pollution has only recently become a topic of research. It is known, however, that repeated exposure to air pollutants can affect children’s central nervous systems.
Studies carried out in China, which has the highest amount of air pollution of any nation in the world, found a positive relationship between the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in the air and epilepsy hospital visits. Sulfur dioxide is created by cars and power plants when they burn sulfur-containing fuels like diesel. It reacts in the atmosphere, forming fine particles, and is particularly dangerous to kids and people with asthma. Nitrogen dioxide, meanwhile, is a major air pollutant that is being blamed for nearly 12,000 premature deaths in 2013 alone in the UK.
The study, which was published in PLOS ONE, points out that even low levels of nitrogen dioxide from traffic-related air pollution affected the neurodevelopment of children in southern Spain, and the researchers’ findings add to this evidence. Moreover, the study confirms the link between sulfur dioxide and epilepsy that was previously established in a study out of Chile.
Epilepsy clusters around nuclear plant
CBS Denver recently profiled a woman who is tracking epilepsy cases in the area surrounding
the Rocky Flats Plant, a former productions facility for nuclear weapons. She was shocked to uncover clusters of people with epilepsy in neighborhoods downwind from the facility. Of particular interest is the fact that there are multiple epilepsy cases among siblings in families with no prior history of the disorder. In just three days, she found 30 cases in the area.
The Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado says that the cause of nearly 60 percent of epilepsy cases is unknown. The other 40 percent can be caused by infections like meningitis, lead poisoning, substance abuse, traumatic brain injury, maternal injury, stroke and brain tumors.