A frightening new study published in the peer-reviewed journal BMJ Open has revealed a troubling link between mental illness and air pollution that seems to particularly effect children. Even at low levels, the presence of these toxic chemicals in the body seem to be associated with significant increases in psychiatric problems.
The study measured the pollution exposure of more than 500,000 children and teens under the age of 18 in Sweden, and compared the results with their medical records, looking for medications prescribed for a wide variety of mental illnesses, ranging from sedatives to anti-psychotics. The study found that the children living in areas with the highest amounts of pollution were much more likely to have received a medication for a psychiatric issue.
It doesn’t take much for these effects to become apparent: The study authors found that a 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in nitrogen dioxide corresponded to a 9 percent increase in mental illness among children, and a 4 percent jump for the same increase in tiny particulate matter. Given that many cities have nitrogen dioxide levels far above the WHO recommended limit of 40 micrograms per cubic meter, this is a troubling trend.
Worse still is the fact that Sweden actually has fairly low levels of air pollution. Even at levels of 15 micrograms per square meter, these effects on children’s mental health were still apparent. This suggests that the problem may be even more serious in countries with higher levels of pollution.
While poor air quality is dangerous for everyone living in an affected area (one study last year linked it to premature aging of the brain in adults), researchers believe that children are particularly vulnerable. Professor Frank Kelly of King’s College London explained in an interview with the Guardian that children are more active and take in more air pollution while at play. They’re also still developing and growing, leaving their bodies more vulnerable to the effects than an adult’s body might be.
This is the first study of its kind to establish a firm link between the two phenomena, but the results are not particularly surprising to researchers in the field. There has been a growing body of research demonstrating the effects of air pollution on mental and cognitive health in recent years, including studies linking prenatal exposure to pollution to the development of autism.
Another series of studies conducted in the U.S. also showed that air pollution may be linked to anxiety and depression among California residents. In adults, exposure has been linked to other ailments, including heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes. In fact, public health grounds in the U.S. and New Zealand believe that air pollution could be responsible for as many as a third of strokes that occur globally.
This problem is exacerbated in countries like Iran, where many families burn fuels like kerosene, wood, diesel, cow dung or natural gas, releasing dangerous pollutants into the home. When you consider the fact that it’s primarily racial minorities who are exposed to the worst air pollution in the U.S., it becomes clear these risks disproportionately fall on people of color both in America and abroad.
It’s easy to be frightened by these kinds of studies, but we shouldn’t let the fear of what air pollution might do to our children paralyze us. Instead, we should take this research as a call to action and use it to push for better regulations and air quality standards in our cities, states and countries.