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Air pollution linked to an increased risk of mental illness

According to a new study, people living in polluted areas with long-term exposure to even comparatively low levels of poor air quality are more likely to develop depression and anxiety.  

Though most people would associate air pollution with the lungs, a new study has highlighted the impact it can also have on the mind.

Writing for the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, researchers have uncovered that long-term exposure to even comparatively low levels of poor air quality can cause depression and anxiety.

The finding adds to a wave of evidence that fossil fuels may be negatively affecting mental health and suggests a need for stricter standards or regulations for air pollution control across the globe.

‘This study provides further evidence on potential impacts of air pollution on the brain to support a lowering of legal limits to air pollution,’ says Anna Hansell, a professor of environmental epidemiology, who was not involved in the research.

Increased Air Pollution Clouds Mental Health

‘It found associations between air pollution and anxiety and depression in the UK, which experiences lower air pollution than many countries worldwide.’

To reach this conclusion, authors tracked the incidence of depression and anxiety in almost 390,000 UK adults over 11 years.

Data from the UK Biobank further investigated the effect of air pollution, which included PM2.5 and PM10, nitrogen dioxide, and nitric oxide.

They found 13,131 cases of depression and 15,835 of anxiety were identified and discovered the condition to be most severe in the presence of pollutants including fine particulate matter, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide. These are commonly emitted into the air when oil and gas is burned for vehicles, power plants, construction equipment, and industrial work.

Air Pollution And Mental Health- Understanding The Larger Impact

For decades, scientists have been raising the alarm about pollution’s impact on physical health, particularly its ability to trigger cardiovascular disease, respiratory infections, lung cancer and more.

In fact, just last year a University of Chicago report confirmed that air pollution now takes more than two years off the global average life expectancy – more than cigarettes, alcohol, or conflict.

Not only this, but air pollution has also been shown to harm older adults’ brains, contributing to cognitive decline and dementia.

On the back of these revelations, it was announced in December that eliminating air pollution from fossil fuels would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths in the United States every single year.

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Unfortunately, this has not yet been recognised in the UK, where ministers are currently facing major criticism after passing a new legally binding air-quality guideline allowing more than double the levels of fine-particulate matter (PM.2.5) than targets set by the World Health Organisation.

Approved this week, the new legislation allows a maximum annual mean concentration of 12 micrograms per cubic metre by 2028, despite the WHO’s recent review to have it at five.

‘It’s really important for governments to be aware of the impacts,’ says Cybele Dey, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who serves as co-chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

‘And that they are conversely aware of the benefits for our health of transitioning off fossil fuels and protecting people from exposure to excessive pollution.’