• Vaishnavi Rana

Air pollution and Mental Health: A Study

Updated: Aug 5

Air pollution, according to the World Health Organization, is contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical, or biological agent that alters the inherent features of the atmosphere. It has a negative impact both on human health and the environment. Breathing issues, major cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, increased heart stress,a shorter lifespan, and even declining mental health are all possible consequences. Recent studies have highlighted the strong link between air pollution and mental health concerns in society. Air pollution affects the central nervous system of individuals and, thereby exposing the populations of different regions to serious mental illnesses across the globe. According to one Forbes article, these findings are adding to growing research highlighting the hidden health costs of the climate crisis. (Hart, 2021) The focus on the relation of air pollution with mental health is a recent development because since the 1970's the researchers have focused on both cardiovascular and respiratory health but not on the effects on the cognitive well-being of a person. But now, epidemiological studies have explored the mental health concerns arising out of increased air pollution levels, although the direct causation is yet to be established. To support these studies,Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, mentioned that "the environmental and climate emergency is also a mental health emergency." (Hart, 2021)

The relation between air pollution and mental health concerns

Mental health is an invisible and understudied impact of climate change. Emma Lawrance of Imperial College London observed that “It is a big problem that is going to affect more and more people into the future, and in particular exacerbate inequality. It is very likely to be a really big unaccounted cost.” (Carrington, 2021) Air pollution exposure is linked to both physical and mental health concerns. The research, published in JAMA Network, highlights the impact of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter on the mental well-being of an individual, which impacts the central nervous system. (Rowello, 2021)5 It interferes with the optimal function of the brain that neurons perform. Young children are more susceptible to the cognitive and behavioral effects of atmospheric pollution because of their juvenile brain. According to Dr Srivastava, along with PM 2.5 and less, Carbon Monoxide, Sulphur Oxides (SOx) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) can cause inflammation in blood vessels and can cause neuro-inflammation by damaging the blood-brain barrier – a thin, delicate membrane that protects the brain from toxic substances 6. (Mathur, 2019) Therefore, it can cause psychiatric and mood disorders in the populations of the regions that are facing the wrath of air pollution.

India is, unfortunately, a part of the same vulnerable regions across the globe because, as per one report by the Greenpeace Foundation, out of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, four are in India. Therefore, the government of India needs to redouble its efforts to ensure a sustainable environment, otherwise, it will exacerbate the ongoing mental health crisis. The University of Stanford had done interesting research under the leadership of Richard N. Zare to explain the link between air pollution and mental health problems.7 (Desikan, 2020)They experimented with mice exposed to the same air pollution as humans. After the experiment, it was observed that the mice could not perform their daily actions and they even showed the symptoms of depression. Based on all of the studies, it can be concluded that a favorable ecosystem is mistakenly produced to fuel the existing mental health issue, which has an over sized impact on people’s limbic systems. It is no longer just dependent on the family context,but now also has connection to the atmospheric environment.

Every progress brings a new crisis to the world’s attention. It’s eye-opening for humanity to realize that climate change is harmful not just to our physical but also to our mental health. Air pollution’s mental and cognitive consequence are finally receiving attention from the mental health research community. Experts advise that we focus on eating a well-balanced diet to combat the effects of air pollution, as well as limiting our exposure to air pollution by only leaving the house when required. They also urged taking precautions such as wearing proper masks when moving out. The government should also take more measures such as accelerating efforts to promote electric vehicles for a sustainable public transportation and encouraging the real estate sector to focus more on green buildings for better air quality.We must exercise greater caution when exposed to air pollution because the longer we are exposed to air pollution, the more devastating the consequences on our mental health are likely to be.


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  2. Study reported in Forbes, Increased air pollution boosts chances of severe mental illness, study finds https://wwwforbescom.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.forbes.com/sites/roberthart/2021/08/27/increased-air- pollution-boosts-chances-of-severe-mental-illness-study-finds/amp/ Robert Hart (last accessed31.12.2021)

  3. Study reported in Forbes, Increased air pollution boosts chances of severe mental illness, study finds https://wwwforbescom.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.forbes.com/sites/roberthart/2021/08/27/increased-air- pollution-boosts-chances-of-severe-mental-illness-study-finds/amp/ Robert Hart (last accessed31.12.2021)

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  6. Article in NDTV, Air pollution may affect your mental well-being, https://swachhindiandtvcom.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/swachhindia.ndtv.com/how-air-pollution-may-affect-your-mental-well-being- experts-39973/ Barkha Mathur, 22 November, 2019 (Last accessed 31.12.2021)

  7. Article in The Hindu, Inhaling polluted air can lead to brain damage, https://wwwthehinducom.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/inhaling-polluted-air-can-lead-to-brain- damage/aricl32531724.ece/amp/ Shubhashree Desikan,05 September 2020,(Last accessed 31.12.2021)

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