Air pollution may impact mental health, study says

Photo by AJ Nakasone on

Tyler Chalfant | August 27th, 2019

Air pollution may be linked to bipolar disorder and depression, according to a study recently published in PLOS Biology Journal. Researchers examined the health data of millions of patients in the United States and Denmark and found that patients exposed to poor quality air were more likely to be diagnosed with each of these conditions. 

Research conducted on dogs and rats had previously shown that air pollution can cause brain inflammation and symptoms resembling depression, and scientists say it is likely that human brains can be exposed to pollution in similar ways. 

Some critics claim that this study raises an “intriguing possibility” in linking air pollution to psychiatric disorders but fails to make a clear case. Besides bipolar disorder and depression, the study also tested for links between pollution and schizophrenia, personality disorder, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease, and failed to find a significant correlation. 

While potential links between pollution and mental health remain largely unexplored, the negative effects of air pollution on physical health have long been known. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution causes about 3.8 million premature deaths annually through heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, and cancers. 

Air pollution has grown worse in most low and middle-income cities over the past several years as demand for power and the use of private motor vehicles have increased, putting many people at risk of long-term health problems.

Air pollution kills 600,000 children annually

The report found that 450 million children in East Asia and the Pacific are living in areas with hazardous levels of air pollutants. (Chris Aston/Flickr)

Jenna Ladd | November 1, 2016

Some two billion children worldwide are breathing air that contains pollutants which exceed the minimum air quality standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to a recent report from UNICEF.

The first of its kind, the study used satellite imagery in order to determine areas that contain the highest concentrations of air pollutants. It revealed that roughly 300 million children live in places “where outdoor air pollution exceeds international guidelines by at least six times.” While 92 percent of the world’s total population breathes air containing dangerous levels of pollutants, experts say that children are especially vulnerable. The report stated that children breathe about twice as quickly as adults, which means they can inhale more air relative to their body weight. Their lungs are also still developing and may be more prone to infection. Air pollution accounts for 1 in 10 deaths of children under the age of five, and takes the lives of about 600,000 children of the same age range annually.

UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement, “Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs — they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains — and, thus, their futures. No society can afford to ignore air pollution.” The report elaborated upon the social and economic implications of breathing highly polluted air. It read,

“The combination of respiratory, cardiovascular, cognitive, morbidity and reproductive health effects of air pollution have biological as well as social and economic effects that last a lifetime. These include health conditions, school attendance, school performance, health costs and productivity, which affect income, poverty and inequalities. Air pollution, through its massive and cumulative impact on the overall health and well-being of children and parents, can perpetuate intergenerational cycles of inequality.”

Experts say the issue is exacerbated by industrialization, with the majority of outdoor air pollution attributable to vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, burning of waste, and dust. In a statement, UNICEF asked countries attending the 2016 United Nations Climate Change Conference to tackle issues related to air quality for children directly. The report said, “Unless action is taken to control outdoor air pollution, studies show that outdoor air pollution will become the leading cause of environment-related child death by 2050.”