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The Surprising Link Between Air Pollution and Mental Health

Recent research has shown that small increases in air pollution are linked to significant rises in depression and anxiety. It has also linked dirty air to increased suicides and indicated that growing up in polluted places increases the risk of mental disorders.


Mental illnesses are health conditions in which one’s mood, thinking, and behavior are affected and altered. These illnesses may range from eating disorders to schizophrenia, and they are caused by various different factors. Some common causes are genetics, traumatic experiences, and chemical imbalances in the brain, and just recently, a new research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry had pointed out that there is a correlation between poor mental health and high exposures to pollution, adding to many preceding researches regarding this matter.



How does pollution affect mental health?


According to the study, “Residential air pollution exposure is associated with increased mental health service use among people recently diagnosed with psychotic and mood disorders” as they had observed that patients were more likely to be hospitalized or require community-based treatment if they had greater exposure to air pollution. The research indicated that the cause of this phenomenon is the high level of air pollution present in people’s homes, particularly nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. It has been found out that these toxins in the air are likely to have adverse effects on human brains, not only affecting our mental health but also intelligence.


In another study conducted by King’s College London and Duke University, it was concluded that there is a higher chance for adolescence to develop mental illnesses when exposed to higher levels of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter during childhood. As the researchers assessed the mental health of 2,039 twins by the age of 18, the results obtained suggested that adolescents who were regularly exposed to moderate levels of nitrogen oxide would more likely experience psychiatric illness by young adulthood, with the results are independent of other influences that are likely to affect mental health.



What is nitrogen oxide and particulate matter?


Nitrogen oxide refers to a mixture of nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), both of which are highly reactive gases produced from natural sources or through motor vehicles and other fuel combustion processes. Nitrogen dioxide, particularly, is formed through the combustion of fuel from “cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment”, and they have detrimental impacts on the environment. For instance, when they combine with water, oxygen, and other chemicals in the air, acid rain is formed. Nitrogen oxides in general also cloud the air and contribute to nutrient pollution. Aside from their environmental impacts, they also contribute to health issues such as irritating airways in our respiratory system or causing asthma.



Particulate matter, on the other hand, is a “mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air”, including dust or dirt. These particles come from various sources such as construction sites or unpaved roads, but they can also form as a result of complex reactions of chemicals that are emitted as industrial waste. As a result of these emissions of particulate matter, acid rain and climate change is worsened, and they may decrease the lung functions of humans.


Although the impacts these toxins have on our mental health is still uncertain, there is still a strong correlation between the level of exposure to these toxins as well as the likelihood of experiencing mental disorders.


If this is true, why does it matter?


Assuming that this correlation is, in fact, causation, this issue would pose a great threat to the well-being of society. Mental illness, if unattended, has the capability to negatively impact the economy, security, education, and health of a community as people are unable to perform their individual roles responsibly and well, thus resulting in lowered productivity and conflict; it is a serious social problem. According to the World Health Organization, nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to high levels of pollution, and if exposure to air pollution does indeed increase the liability to psychiatric illnesses and exacerbate it, then this would greatly challenge mental health services as well as society in general. Scarce resources would be required to accommodate mental health patients, and there would be less quality and valuable inputs from humans; all of these could be prevented by the reduction in air pollution and emissions.



Fundamentally, it cannot be guaranteed that reduced air pollution would decrease the likelihood of people developing mental illnesses. However, it would still be beneficial for society to reduce emissions in case the hypothesis is true. Not to mention, the reduction of emissions would alleviate the burden on the environment and prevent further deterioration of the physical health of humans.


References
  1. Mayo Clinic Staff. Mental illness [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2019 [cited 2021Sep11]. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/symptoms-causes/syc-20374968

  2. Hart R. Increased Air Pollution Boosts Chances Of Severe Mental Illness, Study Finds [Internet]. Forbes. Forbes Magazine; 2021 [cited 2021Sep11]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/roberthart/2021/08/27/increased-air-pollution-boosts-chances-of-severe-mental-illness-study-finds/?sh=55b0aedbdaed

  3. Newbury JB, Stewart R, Fisher HL, Beevers S, Dajnak D, Broadbent M, et al. Association between air pollution exposure and mental health service use among individuals with first presentations of psychotic and mood disorders: retrospective cohort study. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2021;:1–8.

  4. Denis Campbell. Study links childhood air pollution exposure to poorer mental health [Internet]. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media; 2021 [cited 2021Sep11]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/28/study-links-childhood-air-pollution-exposure-to-poorer-mental-health

  5. Nitrogen oxides [Internet]. Queensland Government. The State of Queensland 1995–2021; 2013 [cited 2021Sep11]. Available from: https://www.qld.gov.au/environment/pollution/monitoring/air/air-pollution/pollutants/nitrogen-oxides

  6. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) Pollution [Internet]. EPA. Environmental Protection Agency; 2021 [cited 2021Sep11]. Available from: https://www.epa.gov/no2-pollution/basic-information-about-no2#What is NO2

  7. Particulate Matter (PM) Pollution [Internet]. EPA. Environmental Protection Agency; 2021 [cited 2021Sep11]. Available from: https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/particulate-matter-pm-basics




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