Mental health and air pollution
Air pollution’s effects on physical health have long been documented by scientific studies. According to a study by the University of Chicago, the effects of air pollution have been found to take two years off the global average life expectancy1. Now, studies are starting to focus on the impact of air pollution on mental health, particularly on depression and anxiety. Read more below to find out more about how air pollution impacts our mental well-being and what we can do to reduce our risk.
What are depression and anxiety?
Depression is a serious mental illness that is quite common, impacting one in 6 adults in the UK. Women are twice as likely to experience depression as men2. It impacts all facets of a person’s daily life: the way they feel, how they think, and how they act. For many people, it impacts their physical health as well, often making it difficult to function at home and at work. Rates of depression increased from 10% to 17% as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Symptoms can vary greatly depending upon the individual (from mild to severe) but must last at least two weeks to be considered depression. Some of those symptoms include: feeling sad; loss of interest in activities once enjoyed; changes in appetite (weight loss or gain); changes in sleep patterns; loss of energy; and thoughts of death or suicide3. Depression is associated with other mental difficulties such as anxiety, stress, and loneliness.
Feelings of anxiousness are experienced by most of us to a degree, but in people suffering from anxiety, or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), these feelings are difficult to control and can be all-consuming. Worries begin to impact these individuals’ daily lives to the point where they can no longer remember a time when they felt relaxed. The most common symptoms of GAD are feeling restless or worried, inability to rest or sleep, and/or dizziness and heart palpitations4.
How does air pollution impact mental health?
A long-term study conducted in the UK and China followed 390,000 patients over a period of 11 years5. The study found that long-term exposure to air pollutants – particularly nitrogen dioxide (NO2), nitric oxide (NO), and particulate matter (PM) – can lead to an increased risk of depression and anxiety. Due to the small size of these particles, once inhaled through the lungs and the respiratory system, they can quickly move throughout the rest of the body by entering the bloodstream and being transported to other organs such as the heart and brain. These particles cause inflammation and irritation in organs throughout the body, leading to respiratory disease (and aggravation of respiratory conditions such as asthma), various cancers, stroke, and heart attack5.
A child and adolescent psychiatrist and co-chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia, Cybele Dey, claims that a link between air pollution and mental health has indeed been established, but the pathway is still yet to be understood. Some studies have found that air pollution affects the central nervous system; others believe that air pollution causes the body to release harmful substances that affect the blood-brain barrier5.
Throughout Dey’s studies on children and teens, she has also noted a link between air pollution and problems with learning and attention span. This was proven by a study in the United States that examined one of the largest gas leaks in the country’s history. Following the leak, the gas company at fault for the leak was ordered to install air filters in all schools within a 5-mile radius. As a result of the air filter installations, academic performance in these schools rose substantially (a 0.2 standard deviation increase and the benefits continuing into the years that followed). What remains the most interesting aspect of this study is that during the gas leak (and prior to the air filter installations), tests showed no evidence of natural gas pollutants in the schools. This implies that the noted improvement in student academic achievement was a result of the air filters’ removal of common air pollutants6.
Finally, another researcher and associate professor at Columbia University, Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, states that air pollution is also responsible for exacerbating existing conditions. For people who are already experiencing depression, anxiety, and/or other mental health disorders, days of higher pollution levels lead to an increase in hospital admissions for these disorders. Throughout her studies on air pollution’s effect on health, she and her colleagues have also found links with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s5.
How can we protect our mental health from the dangers of air pollution?
The best way to protect our minds and bodies from polluted air is to reduce air pollution as a whole. We can all make an effort by decreasing our contributions to air pollution: we can favour biking, walking, or public transport to individual vehicle transportation whenever possible. We can also reduce or stop smoking, heat our homes and cook with electric or induction rather than with wood or natural gas, and avoid polluting products containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Furthermore, be sure to regularly ventilate your home and office by opening windows and doors!
Unfortunately, as diligent as we may be in making the above efforts to curb air pollution, 99% of people on Earth breathe air that exceeds the WHO’s recommended level of pollutants. That said, the best thing we can do is to protect ourselves in the places where we spend the most time (at home and at work) by investing in and installing an air purifier.
Eoleaf’s air purifiers are just what the doctor ordered. All of our devices contain 8 medical-grade filtration technologies including HEPA-certified filters (HEPA H13), activated carbon filters, UV sterilisation, and ionisation. Our air purifiers are ready to protect you, your body, and your mind from the dangers of air pollution. By breathing pure air, you can protect yourself from the serious negative health effects of polluted air.
1 Cho, K. K. (2023, February 2). Long-term exposure to pollution linked to depression, study finds. The Washington Post. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2023/02/02/air-pollution-depression-anxiety-study/
2 Pindar, J. (2022). Depression statistics UK: 2022 data. Champion Health. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://championhealth.co.uk/insights/depression-statistics/
3 Torres, F. (2020, October). What is depression? Psychiatry.org - What Is Depression? Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression
4 NHS. (2022, October 5). https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/overview/ . NHS. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/overview/
5 Christensen, J. (2023, February 1). Long-term exposure to dirtier air can increase your risk of depression or anxiety, study finds. CNN. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://edition.cnn.com/2023/02/01/health/pollution-depression-anxiety/index.html
6 Gilraine, Michael. (2020). Air Filters, Pollution and Student Achievement. (EdWorkingPaper: 19-188). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: https://edworkingpapers.com/ai20-188