Air Pollution Linked to Mental Health Problems in Children

Justin Karter
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A new study, published in BMJ Open-Access this week, found a significant link between the level of air pollution in a community and the mental health of the children living there. After controlling for socio-economic status and other potential variables, researchers in Sweden discovered a strong association between the concentration of air pollution in a neighborhood and the amount of ‘antipsychotic’ and psychiatric drugs prescribed to children. The link remained strong even at pollution levels well below half of what is considered acceptable by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Study finds a link between exposure to air pollution and child and adolescent mental health.
Study finds a link between exposure to air pollution and child and adolescent mental health.

In 2013 the World Health Organization named air pollution “the world’s largest single environmental health risk,” responsible for an estimated 7 million deaths per year. Since then, however, new research has also begun to fill in the picture on the mental health effects of air pollution.

A number of studies have observed a correlation between mental health outcomes, like depression and anxiety, and the presence of environmental pollutants including air pollution. For example, a study published last year identified an association between exposure to air pollution, namely fine particulate matter, and heightened anxiety symptoms in over 70-thousand women. Another study conducted by the VA last year found evidence suggesting that air pollution was associated with increased stress levels.

Epidemiological studies, taking wider public health approaches, have also addressed this issue, connecting air pollution to cognitive decline in both children and adults. Earlier this year, researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health found that prenatal exposure to common emissions from motor vehicles, power generation, smoking, and coal may influence the development of children, leading to poor social skills and difficulty managing emotions and impulses. While this type of research shows strong correlations, it is unable to prove a definitive causal link. Some scientists have gone further, however, and explored biological mechanisms through which different forms of air pollution may directly impact mental health.

In 2008, a major study published in the journal Toxicology proposed a mechanism of action for such an effect. The researchers studied children and young adults who were otherwise healthy but died suddenly. They found that those who had lived in cities with high levels of air pollution had inflammation in their nervous systems and an altered immune system response. They concluded that air pollution should be considered a risk factor for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Some have suggested that these studies can be explained by the fact that socially marginalized groups are often forced to live in neighborhoods with the greatest risks for environmental pollutants and that social and economic status have an impact on the incidence of mental health issues. Like previous studies, researchers here have attempted to control for indicators of social and economic status.

In this latest longitudinal study, exposure to air pollution was assessed over time nationally across Sweden and compared to data on psychiatric medications dispensed to children and adolescents under 18. This data was then run through nationwide registries on social and economic indicators to control for potential confounders.

They found that relatively small increases in the amount of air pollution in a given community were correlated with significant increases in the percentage of children being prescribed drugs for a mental health issue.

While the WHO and EU currently suggest that air pollution be kept under an annual level of 40 µg/m3, the researchers found a disproportionate level of psychiatric prescriptions occurring at pollution levels as low as 15 µg/m3 of NO2.  Even levels as low as 10 µg/m3 were linked with as much as a 9% increase in the prescription of psychiatric drugs to minors.

“If confirmed,” the researchers conclude, “our findings implicate that there may be a link between exposure to air pollution and dispensed medications for certain psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents.”

The study has been published Open-Access and can be read in full here →

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Oudin, A., Bråbäck, L., Åström, D.O., Strömgren, M. and Forsberg, B., 2016. Association between neighbourhood air pollution concentrations and dispensed medication for psychiatric disorders in a large longitudinal cohort of Swedish children and adolescents. BMJ open6(6), p.e010004. (Full Text)

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8 COMMENTS

    • ‘Mental illness’ is not an illness, it is a natural response to a toxic environment, be it social or environmental.”

      The evidence is mounting that environmental provocation plays a huge role in mental (as well as physical) illness, but that does not negate the “illness.” Smoking causes cancer, but that does not make cancer any less an illness. Ditto for diabetes which can be caused by excess sugar consumption.

      • rofl GetItRight, are you seriously going to try and argue that ‘mental illness’ is a real illness on this website? Good luck with that.

        Mental illness is NOT a biological illness, brain disease, chemical imbalance, or genetic defect. There is ZERO evidence to support such claims, yet much evidence to prove such claims are wrong. If you think there is evidence to support such claims, please provide references. And not just “that one at the top of the list” following a single google search.

        But, you know, try and argue that ‘mental illness’ is like diabetes, and people need their psychiatric drugs like diabetics need their insulin. We’ll just laugh you out the door.

  1. Its not the air quality its city life Vs country life for kids.

    In the city kids grow up in a cheesy apartments, likely they can’t even go outside alone , in the country you have dogs and trees to climb, build a tree house and woods to play in and fishing and hunting and ATVs stuff like that. What do kids do for fun in cities ? I don’t even know.

    Lets find a link ,

    Living in the country really is healthier than city life http://www.naturalnews.com/032877_country_life_longevity.html

    “Air pollution ” Give me a break.

  2. I already did a post but this is such an insult to intelligence claiming that city kids have mental health problems cause of air pollution and not from being shut up in lame apartments and not being able to play outside cause there is nothing but cars and concreate and stuff. I found a much better link to post.

    “A small, yet provocative study published in Nature has found that the brains of people from the city and the countryside respond differently to social stress and those people who grew up in urban areas are more susceptible to mental disorders, such as schizophrenia, than those raised in rural settings.”

    “Yet schizophrenia is twice as common in those who are city-born and raised as in those from the countryside, and the bigger the city, the higher the risk”

    More http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110622/full/474429a.html

  3. I believe clean air and water make a difference. The extent of this difference and its exact effect will need more studies. This is one study. I have observed that I find mental health services much harder to access in this rural setting than the urban area where I accessed them for my job. The insurance gaps in the state would not provide the type of services I once took for granted. The proximity of services in a city will always be a factor in how likely someone will be accessing those services. People in rural areas are the most at risk population in this country. And the air pollution in their older homes can be very bad. Air pollution is not just an outdoor phenomenon.