The Growing Impact of Air Pollution on Mental Health

The Growing Impact of Air Pollution on Mental Health

Air pollution has started to become a serious issue in India. With recent news displaying the growing environmental concerns about air quality and rises in heat temperatures across the country, it is no surprise that ill effects of air pollution are becoming frequently seen. The following articles examine the increasing rate of air pollution in India, it’s ill-effects and its impact on mental health.

Air Pollution Statistics in India

As of today, India is the second most polluted country in the world. According to data obtained in 2016, at least 140 million people living in India breathe air which is more than 10 times over the recommended WHO safe limit. This worsened air pollution is not a sudden occurrence as one might expect but rather an accumulation over time. That is, since 1998 the average pollution level has increased 22 percent across decades.

But the pollution levels vary across cities in India. Based on estimates almost 1.4 billion people in India live in areas where the pollution level exceeds the WHO guidelines. In these alarming rates, cities of northern India especially Lucknow and Delhi have seen the greatest rates of air pollution which reduces life expectancy to around 12 to 13 years. According to the Air Quality Life Index, India’s air pollution reduces life expectancy by about 6.3 years compared to other countries.

Where does this much air pollution in the country arise from? On the basis of reports, cars are responsible for 27% of the air pollution, while industrial pollution accounts for 51% of it. Crop burning is responsible for 17% of the pollution, while unidentified external factors are responsible for 5%. Other than reducing life expectancy rates, air pollution also contributes to 2 million premature deaths in India every year. According to the study, 30% of Indian nonsmokers had less robust lungs than European nonsmokers. Nearly 1.67 million fatalities and an estimated loss of productivity of USD 28.8 billion are due to India’s rising air pollution, according to a 2019 Lancet research.

Links Between Air Pollution and Mental Health

If you have read by far into this article, you may have some idea about how much of a problem air pollution can be. Even though the focus of this essay is on mental health, air pollution can have a lasting negative impact on physical health. These health conditions include infections and diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia, cardiovascular problems, asthma, allergies, and even cancer. Looking into the physical impacts of pollution is a broad topic itself which I don’t feel to touch upon in this article.

We may create several connections with pollution by looking at its mental elements. Most of the research focuses on tiny particulate matter that is 1/30th the width of human air. These tiny pollutants in the air, upon encountering you, can cross through your body’s defences. This means that these tiny particles upon inhaling them can cross from the individual’s lungs into the bloodstream, and in certain cases, they can even travel into the axon of the olfactory nerve into their brain.

A few of the research highlights surrounding this topic are given below:
  • A large scale conducted in USA and Denmark found that exposure to polluted air can significantly impact the risk of occurrence of disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and personality disorder. Researchers believe that the association between pollution and mental symptoms and neuroinflammatory processes. This neuroinflammation could include increased levels of cytokines.
  • Upon reviewing 100 studies surrounding the topic of outdoor air pollution on mental health and brain regions reported that 73% of the studies showed an increase in mental health symptoms in exposure to higher levels of pollution. According to the author, Clara G. Zundel, pollution may cause changes in brain regions that control emotions (specifically the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex) increasing the likelihood of developing anxiety and depression.
  • Among children and adolescents, it was reported that increased exposure to air pollutants to be linked with risk of depression symptoms and suicidal ideation. Researchers have also noted anatomical and functional alterations brought on by pollution in the brain. Poor air quality in early periods of life is also associated with exacerbating existing mental health conditions among children.
  • Jennifer Weuve and colleagues gathered data from Nurses’ Health Study Cognitive Cohort and found that among older women, individuals exposed to increased pollutants show a greater cognitive decline compared to those who weren’t exposed. The Weuve study showed not only fine particles can affect your brain but also coarse particles. This study shows that air pollution may be a contributing factor to dementia in older adults.
  • According to some theories, pollution causes the body to experience oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which accelerate the development of mental diseases. Researchers have also found a correlation between children’s psychiatric appointments becoming more frequent and brief exposure to high levels of air pollution.

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