Most of us are used to hearing about the traditional physical ailments caused by breathing poisoned air, and even about the more recently-connected neurological impacts. But a new Swedish study is the first time we’ve seen a report linking air pollution to mental illness in children.
The new research, peer reviewed and published by the journal BMJ Open, found that relatively small increases in air pollution were associated with a significant increase in treated psychiatric problems. Its conclusions are consistent with a growing body of evidence that air pollution can affect mental and cognitive health.
Two things about this study stand out: 1) How rigorous it was. It examined the exposure levels of over 500,000 Swedish kids under 18 for more than three years; 2) The very low levels of air pollution linked to increased diagnosis and treatment. This is a familiar story, but it’s driven home by a new correlation to mental illness. The more we examine the impacts of toxins on people, the more we understand there is no “safe level” of exposure we can count on. The variety of nuanced adverse health effects will not be as obvious as cancer or asthma. Instead they might show up as depression, or the inability to conceive.
The pollutants studied were Particulate Matter and Nitrogen Dioxide. There’s already a large body of evidence linking PM pollution to neurological diseases and learning disabilities. Tiny PM uses the body’s bloodstream as a highway to hitchhike its way to any organ. Since so much of our blood goes to our brain, it’s not surprising that so many brain functions are affected by it.
“The results can mean that a lower concentration of air pollution, first and foremost from traffic, may reduce psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents,” said Anna Oudin, at Umeå University, who led the study. “I would be worried myself if I lived in an area with high air pollution.”
But has her own study shows, you don’t have to live in areas with “high air pollution” to be impacted.