The impact of air pollution on mental health

Evidence of links grows

From asthma and respiratory diseases to cancer and dementia, the negative effects of air pollution on physical health have long been known and documented. What is now coming to light is the potential impact that poor air quality can have on mental health.

Concentrating particularly on the effects of NO2 and PM2,5, a recent study published in “Psychiatry Research” (Source) explored the incidence of mental health issues among young people living in different neighborhoods of London. The study found a clear correlation between high levels of exposure to pollution during early childhood and increased levels of depression.

Beyond genetic predisposition

Eliminating common factors, such as family history, the London study showed that children who spent their adolescence in highly polluted areas of the city had an increased likelihood of suffering clinically diagnosed symptoms of depression and behavioral disorders by the age of 18. A recent University of Chicago study is even more troubling. The research revealed higher levels of serious psychiatric conditions – including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and personality disorders – all among people who had grown up breathing poor air. (Source)

Co-author Prof. Andrey Rzhetsky said the team investigated further after finding that genetics did not fully explain why some people suffer from these conditions and others do not. Previous studies had been limited by generalizations based on huge geographical areas, comparing results between entire states or regions.

Applying forensics

Seeking more meaningful results, Prof. Rzhetsky and his co-researchers sharpened their focus. They chose to work with air pollution data from Denmark that had been collected on a scale of just 1 km2, examining air pollution exposure during a child’s first 10 years of life. The team then traced their subjects as they aged, tracking subsequent diagnoses for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorder and depression. Even after controlling for factors such as age, sex and socioeconomic status, the team found that the rate of all four mental disorders was greater among people who had grown up in highly polluted areas.

The research team split their subjects up into seven equal-sized groups. The bottom seventh – those who had grown up with the worst air – had higher rates for bipolar (29%), schizophrenia (148% or almost 1.5 times more), depression (51%) and personality disorder (162% or >1.5 times more) than the top seventh. Although further research is needed to corroborate such studies (See for example: example 1 and  example 2), the correlation is becoming too consistent to ignore.

Tackling a familiar enemy

Not for the first time, particulate matter has emerged as the main enemy, especially respirable PM2,5 particles. The effects PM has on the body and brain are the primary causes of the physical and mental health problems associated with air pollution. Numerous studies on both animal and human health (Source) have shown that PM causes inflammation in the central nervous system. This potentially increases the risk of developing depression, anxiety, bipolar and other psychiatric disorders. Long-term exposure to air pollution may also have large-scale negative effects on general wellbeing.

There is no argument about the need to improve air quality and protect against breathing unhealthy air through the use of high-quality filters anywhere people spend large amounts of time – at home, in cars, at school, at the workplace. The work of Freudenberg Filtration Technologies in continuing to push the boundaries of effective air filtration grows more important with each day that passes.