- A new study found that after exposure to short-term air pollution, children were more likely to go to the emergency room for anxiety and suicidal thoughts or attempts.
- Other research has also linked long-term pollution exposure to anxiety and depression in young people.
- Children in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates were even more likely to visit emergency rooms after days with poor air quality, the study showed.
Air pollution can mess with your body and mind – it can lead to asthma, preterm birth, heart attacks, and even a shorter lifespan.
A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives adds another risk to that list: The researchers found that short-term exposure to ambient air pollution is linked to more hospital visits for kids with psychiatric disorders.
Specifically, the study revealed a connection between an increase in air pollution and higher rates of suicidal thoughts and self-injury in people age 18 and under.
“Our thought was that if stressors and different things that cause inflammation inside your body have led to psychiatric exacerbations, then air pollution could do a lot of the same thing,” Cole Brokamp, the lead author of the study and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati, told Insider.
The study comes on the heels of other research that found a link between high levels of traffic-related air pollution and generalized anxiety. Exposure to pollution has also been shown to have a strong association with self-reported depression and anxiety symptoms in 12-year-olds.
“If a child has an underlying condition, say anxiety, depression or risk for suicidality, then they might be a little more likely after a high air pollution day to have a flare-up,” Brokamp said.
The link between dirty air and mental illness
Brokamp used electronic health records at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to investigate potential associations between short-term air pollution events and emergency-room visits. He focused on ambient pollution – the kind in the air due to traffic or industrial emissions.
Brokamp focused on the short-term impacts of breathing polluted air, rather than long-term consequences, since air pollution levels vary significantly day to day.
The results of his study suggest that an increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of particle matter in the air was associated with an increase in visits to the hospital’s psychiatric emergency department.
In addition to suicidal thoughts and behavior, Brokamp found, adjustment disorder also brought kids to the hospital within about 24 hours after a high-pollution day. Adjustment disorder refers to excess levels of stress and anxiety experienced in response to a stressful or unexpected event.
A kid’s neighborhood could also affect their risk of mental-health symptoms
The link between air pollution and mental-health symptoms was even more significant among children living in high-stress areas – locations where there’s a lot of crime, high poverty, or limited community resources, Brokamp said.
Kids living in what the study calls “deprived neighborhoods” – defined based on census-based factors like the percentage of households below the poverty line and the proportion of vacant houses – were more susceptible to health effects linked to pollution, especially suicidality, Brokamp said.
For example, the odds of a child from a high-deprivation area coming into the emergency room for suicidality on a heavy pollution day were roughly double that of a kid from a low-deprivation neighborhood, the study found.
Brokamp hopes that this kind of research could spur efforts to mitigate exposure to air pollution among at-risk populations.
“This study could be a first step in the direction of looking at different groups of people and seeing who is the most susceptible,” he said. “A one-size-fits-all approach to setting ambient air quality recommendations, for say an entire county, might not do a good enough job protecting those more at risk.”
To advance his research, Brokamp hopes to replicate this research in a different population, and perhaps even recruit kids with psychiatric disorders to participate in a study that would monitor the severity of their symptoms day-to-day and compare that data to changes in air quality.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.