Data from almost 14,000 people shows a possible link between exposure to traffic-related air pollution and mental illness severity. The research is the first to show this link.
As reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the team found that residential exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen oxides such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is associated with higher usage of mental health services use by people recently diagnosed with psychotic and mood disorders. If this association is actually a causal link, air pollution reduction wouldn’t just benefit the physical health of individuals, but also their mental health.
The data showed that over a one-year period, for every three micrograms per cubic meter increase of PM2.5 and 15 micrograms per cubic meter increase in NO2 risk of having an inpatient stay increased by 11 percent and 18 percent respectively. The same increases were associated with a 7 percent and 32 percent increased risk of people needing community-based mental healthcare interventions.
The data collected from 13,887 patients in London was across multiple years, and the association was still strong seven years in. Air pollution has previously been linked to a higher risk of depression and suicide.
“We observed these findings for both mood disorders and psychotic disorders, as well as for both inpatient and community-based mental healthcare, and over seven years follow-up. This suggests that air pollution may contribute to a broad range of mental health problems, across a wide spectrum of clinical need, and over long periods of time,” first author Dr Joanne Newbury, from Bristol Medical School (PHS), said in a statement.
“We now plan to examine whether air pollution is associated with a broader range of mental health, neurodevelopmental, and educational outcomes, particularly among children, who might be especially vulnerable to air pollution,” Dr Newbury said.
The team controlled for several variables that could influence such an association, including socio-economic status, population density, age, season, marital status, and ethnicity. That said, they couldn’t find a direct cause for such an increase – more research is necessary to better understand what is going on.
“The environmental and climate emergency is also a mental health emergency. Our health is fundamentally linked to the quality of our environment, whether that's about cleaner air, access to green spaces or protection from extreme weather,” added Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who was not involved in the study.
“If air pollution is exacerbating pre-existing serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, then improving air quality could reduce the pressure on mental health services. As we look ahead to our post-pandemic future, it is vital that we find ways to build back greener and prevent poor health. This important research presents a clear example where these go hand-in-hand,” Dr James continued.
London has a major pollution problem, with every borough exceeding healthy limits. and just last year of a landmark inquest ruled that air pollution was a leading factor in the death of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah.