A growing number of studies are pointing to a link between exposure to air pollution and mental health disorders across age groups.
Research to-date has mainly focused on air pollution affects among adults, and now a new set of studies conducted by scientists from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati have found a similar connection among children.
The first study found that short-term exposure to air pollution worsened psychiatric disorders in children between one and two days later, as measured by increased patient intake at the Cincinnati Children’s emergency department for psychiatric disorders over a five-year period. The study analyzed data from just over 6,800 children during 13,176 psychiatric emergency department visits.
“This study is the first to show an association between daily outdoor air pollution levels and increased symptoms of psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and suicidality, in children,” said lead study author Cole Brokamp, PhD, a researcher in the division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “More research is needed to confirm these findings, but it could lead to new prevention strategies for children experiencing symptoms related to a psychiatric disorder.”
The study found the worst outcomes among kids living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, especially related to anxiety and suicidality disorders.
“The fact that children living in high poverty neighborhoods experienced greater health effects of air pollution could mean that pollutant and neighborhood stressors can have synergistic effects on psychiatric symptom severity and frequency,” added Dr. Brokamp.
Another study found a connection between “recent high traffic related air pollution (TRAP) exposure” and children’s mental health. Using neuroimaging techniques, the researchers traced a link between TRAP, metabolic disturbances in the brain, and symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder in otherwise healthy kids. The main culprit in the connection, indicated by the neuroimaging results, was the brain’s inflammatory response to air pollution.
A related study found that early-life exposure to TRAP was associated with higher self-reported anxiety and depression symptoms among 12-year old children. Since these results relied on self-reporting, they are less reliable than those from the other studies, but still add to an overall evaluation of how air pollution may affect children’s mental health.
“Collectively, these studies contribute to the growing body of evidence that exposure to air pollution during early life and childhood may contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems in adolescence,” said study co-author Patrick Ryan, PhD.
Findings like these, which add to those of previous research, are especially concerning as the current administration rolls back decades of regulations under the Clean Air Act. Only time will tell how these changes will affect overall health outcomes, but the evidence so far suggests that higher levels of toxins circulating in the air we breathe may strain an already challenged picture of mental health.