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Air pollution's impact on mental health from birth to adulthood

Researchers from the University of Bristol found a link between air pollution during pregnancy/childhood and mental health issues in adolescence. The study highlights the urgent need to address pollution, particularly in high-risk areas like India

By Ground report
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Air pollution's impact on mental health from birth to adulthood

Photo credit: Tom Wang/Shutterstock

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Researchers from the University of Bristol led a study that revealed a link between air pollution during pregnancy and childhood, and the risk of developing mental health problems in adolescence and early adulthood. The findings, published in JAMA Network Open, highlight the consequences of air pollution.

The research studied the long-term effects of early life air and noise pollution exposure on mental health. Experts from King's College London, University College London, and Cardiff University were involved. The study tracked data from over 9,000 Bristol participants, including 14,000 pregnant women between 1991 and 1992, their children, and spouses.

During pregnancy or childhood, a small increase in fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) puts unborn babies at higher risk of psychological disorders, hallucinations, delusions, depression, and anxiety later in life. This relationship remains strong even after accounting for factors like family history of mental illness, socioeconomic status, population density, lack of green spaces, and social fragmentation.

Quantifying the risk

The study found that a 0.72 micrograms/cubic meter increase in PM2.5 raised the risk of experiencing unusual or scary things by 11% during pregnancy or childhood. It likewise raised the risk of feeling very strange later on by 9%. Prenatal PM2.5 exposure increased the likelihood of depression by 10%.

Dr. Joan Newbury, the lead researcher at the University of Bristol, emphasized the critical nature of developmental stages for mental health. She stated, "Childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood are crucial for mental health, as two-thirds of those with mental health issues experienced them before age 25."

The findings have grave implications for India, the third most polluted country after Bangladesh and Pakistan. In 2023, the average level of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in India was ten times higher than the World Health Organization's standards. Alarmingly, 67.4 percent of India's population lives in areas with pollution levels exceeding the country's national air quality standards.

Air pollution affects mental health globally. A study in the journal Frontiers of Environmental Science and Engineering showed it impairs cognitive function and concentration.

The study involved examining information from more than 9,000 individuals who are part of the Children of the 90s birth cohort, established in Bristol. This cohort originally comprised over 14,000 expectant mothers recruited in 1991 and 1992, and both the mothers and their children have been continuously monitored since then.

Protect vulnerable populations from pollution

Researchers emphasize proactive measures in high-pollution areas to reduce mental health problems, as pollution is preventable. Pregnant women and newborns in polluted areas need special attention due to their vulnerability.

This study is a wake-up call, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive policies and actions to combat air pollution and safeguard the mental well-being of current and future generations.

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