Children and youth who grow up amid heavy traffic-related air pollution have higher rates of mental illness by the time they turn 18, new research has found.
There is a link between exposure to nitrogen oxides and particulate matter in childhood and the development of disorders such as anxiety and depression, the academics said.
The findings come from a 25-year joint British / American study of 2,039 children, all twins, born in England and Wales during 1994 and 1995, whose mental health was assessed at 18.
“These results collectively suggest that youth persistently exposed to moderate levels of nitrogen oxide air pollution may experience an overall greater propensity for psychiatric illness in young adulthood,” the authors concluded.
The link between air pollution and risk of mental illness is “modest” but real, they added. The association was also “a responsibility independent of other individual, family and neighborhood influences on mental health,” such as poverty and a family history of mental disorders.
Study co-author Dr. Helen Fisher said: “This study has shown that children growing up in our largest cities face an increased risk of mental illness due to higher levels of traffic.
“While we would like to think of our towns and cities as green and open spaces, it is clear that there is a hidden danger that many will not even have considered.”
Fisher was the principal investigator of the study at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, which also involved Duke University in the United States.
Participants’ mental health was measured when they were 18 years old by assessing the symptoms of 10 common psychiatric disorders, including ADHD, anxiety, and alcohol dependence. That was used to calculate a measure of her mental health called a psychopathological factor or p factor. Those with a higher p-factor score showed more of these symptoms.
The researchers found that those with the highest exposure to nitrogen oxides scored 2.62 points higher on the general psychopathology score than their peers in the bottom three quartiles. Those exposed to the highest amount of particulate matter scored 2.04 points more than their peers.
Andy Bell, deputy executive director of the Center for Mental Health think tank, said: “We know from research that our mental health is determined by the lives we lead, the environments we find ourselves in, and our experiences from our earliest years onward. A child’s mental health is influenced by many factors, including their home, school, community, and neighborhood.
“We know that poverty, racism, trauma and exclusion are major mental health risks. As today’s research shows, our physical environment is important too, and making places safer, cleaner and healthier to live will have lifelong benefits. “
Pollution has already been identified as an aggravating factor in poor heart and lung health and central nervous system ailments, as well as a risk of mental illness. Nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to high levels of pollution, according to the World Health Organization.
Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, said that while the study showed an association between traffic fumes and mental illness, “what they can’t do is show that it’s high air pollution that really causes the worst mental health. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism