According to a recently published study, evidence has been unearthed linking air pollution to mental health conditions. However, there isn’t much clarity on whether and how our brains are affected by pollution.
What discoveries have been made by this new study?
Researchers have identified a strong correlation between poor air quality and increased rates of major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder as well as personality disorders. This was from data analyzed from 151 million individuals in the United States and 1.4 million individuals in Denmark. This points out a link but doesn’t certainly imply that these conditions are caused by pollution.
Is the link between these conditions and pollution strong?
It was realized that air quality was the second strongest predictor that led to the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Air quality followed ethnicity which was the strongest predictor. This was uncovered when health insurance claims in the United States were analyzed by the team. Previous studies have pointed out the existence of a relation between polluted regions and teens describing psychotic experiences. They also cited a relationship between local air pollution and Swedish children’s psychiatric disorders.
Is there concrete evidence for these cases?
Evidence is still being studied by scientists owing to methodological difficulties and limited studies.
The lack of data relating to the true extent of one’s air pollution exposure is one of the problems faced. Some research has focused on going for air quality measurements on a city-wide scale rather than going for specific addresses. This leads to a huge gap given that there may be a significant difference in the air pollution levels of one street and an adjacent one.
According to the new study, mapping of the exposure within the US was done at a country level. Remember that these aren’t just hundreds of square miles but thousands of them in an area.
Are there any other explanations that have been put forward concerning dirty air and psychiatric conditions?
Where data was available, confounding factors were taken into consideration by this study. They include ethnicity, income, and population density. Still, traffic noise is an obvious factor that can be associated with both pollution and mental health problems. Traffic noise is notoriously known for sleep disruption and stress increment.
Other studies have pointed out that deprivation could just be the key element, taking into account that pollution and psychiatric conditions are both linked to poverty.
What level of seriousness should be placed on the air pollution and mental health link?
Even though not much evidence has been put out, there’s an agreement that further research needs to be done to find out more about the relation between polluted air and mental disorders.
What ways do our brains get affected by pollution?
The brain can be potentially affected by the tiniest pollutants that infiltrate the blood-brain barrier. This particulate matter is referred to as PM2.5s. Another possibility is that the brain’s stress response may be ignited once the body’s inflammation increases. Air pollution can lead to an increase in body inflammation. Thirdly, epigenetic alterations may occur due to pollution. The DNA’s activity is affected through these alterations. Changes in the brain’s chemical levels may occur because of this. However, caution is still being exercised concerning these results since tentative mechanisms were employed during the studies.
Why is there a need to prove the link between air quality and our brains? Shouldn’t we, in any case, get concerned due to the physical effects?
A huge bearing on policy may not be achieved through unearthing stronger evidence signifying a link. Stanford University’s John Ioannidis wrote that new avenues would be opened in the treatment and prevention of mental conditions if it was discovered that dirty air caused mental conditions. This was in a commentary article in PLOS Biology.
What more is being done?
Research on the effect of air pollution on mental health is lagging five to ten years. This is despite the overwhelming evidence present on physical health impacts. There’s a need for studies in this area to be done for a longer period. Still, they have to be better geographically mapped with the assistance of people with individual pollution monitors. This kind of research is underway.