University of Washington School of Public Health
How air pollution clouds mental health
Research shows that dirty air can impair breathing and aggravate various lung diseases. Other potential effects are being investigated, too, as scientists examine connections between toxic air and obesity, diabetes, and dementia.
Now add to that list psychological distress, which University of Washington researchers have found is also associated with air pollution. The higher the level of particulates in the air, the UW-led study showed, the greater the impact on mental health.
The study, published in the November issue of Health & Place, is believed to be the first to use a nationally representative survey pool, cross-referenced with pollution data at the census block level, to evaluate the connection between toxic air and mental health.
“This is really setting out a new trajectory around the health effects of air pollution,” said co-author Anjum Hajat, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the University of Washington School of Public Health. “The effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health and lung diseases like asthma are well established, but this area of brain health is a newer area of research.”
The UW study looked for a direct connection between toxic air and mental health, relying on some 6,000 respondents from a larger, national, longitudinal study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Researchers then merged an air pollution database with records corresponding to the neighborhoods of each of the 6,000 survey participants.
The team zeroed in on measurements of fine particulate matter, a substance produced by car engines, fireplaces and wood stoves, and power plants fueled by coal or natural gas. The survey questions relevant to the UW study gauged participants’ feelings of sadness, nervousness, hopelessness and the like and were scored with a scale that assesses psychological distress.
The UW study found that the risk of psychological distress increased alongside the amount of fine particulate matter in the air. For example, in areas with high levels of pollution (21 micrograms per cubic meter), psychological distress scores were 17 percent higher than in areas with low levels of pollution (five micrograms per cubic meter). Another finding: Every increase in pollution of five micrograms per cubic meter had the same effect as a 1.5-year loss in education.
Researchers controlled for other physical, behavioral and socioeconomic factors that can influence mental health, such as chronic health conditions, unemployment and excessive drinking.
But some patterns emerged that warrant more study, explained primary author Victoria Sass, a graduate student in the department of sociology. When the data are broken down by race and gender, black men and white women show the most significant correlation between air pollution and psychological distress.