UK air pollution harms mental health


Mental illness is linked to air pollution in the UK, according to a study.

A study looking into the relationship between air quality and mental health found that even relatively low levels of air pollution could cause depression and anxiety if exposed for a long time.

Researchers found that people who lived in areas with higher levels of pollution were more likely to experience episodes of depression and anxiety, even when the air quality was within official limits, when they tracked the incidence of these conditions among almost 500,000 adults in the UK over the course of eleven years.

The findings, which the researchers from the universities of Oxford, Beijing, and Imperial College London reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, suggested that tighter standards or regulations for controlling air pollution were required.

The ministers have been criticized for passing new air quality guidelines that allow more than double the levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) than the World Health Organization’s equivalent targets.

This week, legislation allowing a maximum annual mean concentration of 12 micrograms per cubic meter by 2028 was approved by peers. In September 2021, the WHO completed a review of its air quality guideline levels from 2005, reducing the PM2.5 limit by half to five micrograms.

The researchers noted that while a growing body of evidence is establishing a connection between air pollution and mental health disorders, air pollution has long been linked to a number of respiratory disorders. However, the only studies on depression risk that are currently available were conducted in areas where air pollution concentrations exceeded UK air quality standards.

The researchers used the data from the UK Biobank, which included 389,185 participants, to model and assign a score to the air pollution, including PM2.5 and PM10, nitrogen dioxide, and nitric oxide, in the areas where the participants lived. Within a follow-up period of approximately 11 years, they discovered that 13,131 cases of depression and 15,835 cases of anxiety were identified among their sample.

The researchers found that the number of cases of depression and anxiety rose in tandem with the rise in air pollution. However, exposure-response curves were non-linear, with steeper slopes at lower exposure levels and plateauing trends at higher exposure levels. This suggests that long-term exposure to low pollution levels was just as likely to result in diagnoses as exposure to higher pollution levels.

The researchers said they hoped policymakers would take their findings into account. “Considering that many countries’ air quality standards are still well above the latest World Health Organization global air quality guidelines 2021, stricter standards or regulations for air pollution control should be implemented in the future policy making,” they wrote.

The study, according to Anna Hansell, a professor of environmental epidemiology at the University of Leicester who was not a part of the study, is yet more evidence in favor of lowering the legal limits for air pollution.

“This study provides further evidence on potential impacts of air pollution on the brain,” she said. “The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution reported in 2022 on the evidence of associations between air pollution and cognitive decline and dementia. The report concluded that the link was likely to be causal.

“However, there are few studies to date on air pollution and mental health. This well-conducted new study found associations between air pollution and anxiety and depression in the UK, which experiences lower air pollution than many countries worldwide.”



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