Researchers in the US have found that when pollution levels go up, so do mental health problems. [Photo: Bigstock]

Pollution’s damaging effects on mental health

7 November, 2017

Most of us already know about the strong link between pollution and respiratory disease. But new evidence suggests that air pollution may also be taking a toll on our mental health.

Decades of research shows that dirty air can impair breathing and aggravate various lung diseases. Other potential effects are being investigated, too, as scientists examine connections between toxic air and obesity, diabetes and dementia.

But now University of Washington researchers say we should be adding psychological distress to that list. The higher the level of particulates in the air, according to their work, the greater the impact on mental health.

The study, recently published in the journal Health & Place, is thought to be the first to use a nationally representative sample of people in the US, cross-referenced with pollution data to evaluate the connection between toxic air and mental health.

A new trajectory

What you need to know

» New research from the US suggests that, along with the biological impacts of air pollution, we need to be paying greater attention to its mental health impacts.

» The large study of 6000 people correlated local air quality with signs of psychological distress such as feelings of sadness, nervousness and hopelessness and found a direct connection between toxic air and mental wellbeing.

» The effects of air pollution were more pronounced in some groups – notably white women and black men – suggesting that pollution can exaggerate some existing problems of social inequality.

“This is really setting out a new trajectory around the health effects of air pollution,” said Anjum Hajat, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the University of Washington School of Public Health. “The effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health and lung diseases like asthma are well established, but this area of brain health is a newer area of research.”

Where a person lives can make a big difference to health and quality of life. Scientists have identified “social determinants” of physical and mental well-being, such as availability of healthy foods at local grocers, access to nature or neighborhood safety.

Air pollution, too, has been associated with behavior changes – spending less time outside, for instance, or leading a more sedentary lifestyle – that can be related to psychological distress or social isolation.

For this reason the study looked for a direct connection between toxic air and mental health, relying on date from some 6,000 respondents who were part of a larger national, study into economic and social wellbeing which has been ongoing since 1968.

High levels of particulates

Researchers then merged an air pollution database with records corresponding to the neighborhoods of each of the 6,000 survey participants.

The team focused particularly on measurements of fine particulate matter, a substance produced by car engines, fireplaces and wood stoves, and power plants fuelled by coal or natural gas. Fine particulate matter (particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter) is easily inhaled, can be absorbed into the bloodstream and is considered of greater risk than larger particles.

The current safety standard for fine particulates, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, is 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Between 1999 and 2011, the time frame examined in the study, survey respondents lived in neighbourhoods where fine particulates measured anywhere from 2.16 to 24.23 micrograms per cubic meter, with an average level of 11.34.

To picture just how small fine particulate matter is, consider this: The average human hair is 70 micrometres in diameter.

Emotional responses

Survey questions gauged participants’ feelings of sadness, nervousness, hopelessness and the like and were scored with a scale that assesses psychological distress.

What they found was that the risk of psychological distress increased alongside the amount of fine particulate matter in the air. For example, in areas with high levels of pollution (21 micrograms per cubic meter), psychological distress scores were 17 percent higher than in areas with low levels of pollution (5 micrograms per cubic meter). Another finding: Every increase in pollution of 5 micrograms per cubic meter had the same effect as a 1.5-year loss in education.

Researchers controlled for other physical, behavioural and socioeconomic factors that can influence mental health, such as chronic health conditions, unemployment and excessive drinking.

But some patterns emerged that warrant more study, explained primary author Victoria Sass, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology.

Exaggerating social inequality

When the data are broken down by race and gender, black men and white women show the most significant correlation between air pollution and psychological distress: The level of distress among black men, for instance, in areas of high pollution, is 34% greater than that of white men, and 55% greater than that of Latino men.

A noticeable trend among white women is the substantial increase in distress – 39% – as pollution levels rise from low to high.

Precisely why air pollution impacts mental health, especially among specific populations, was beyond the scope of the study, Sass said. But that’s what makes further research important.

“Our society is segregated and stratified, which places an unnecessary burden on some groups,” Sass said. “Even moderate levels can be detrimental to health.”

Air pollution, however, is something that can be mitigated, Hajat said, and has been declining in the United States. It’s a health problem with a clear, actionable solution. But it requires the political will to continue to regulate air quality, Sass added.

“We shouldn’t think of this as a problem that has been solved,” she said. “There is a lot to be said for having federal guidelines that are rigorously enforced and continually updated. The ability of communities to have clean air will be impacted with more lax regulation.”