More evidence linking air pollution to mental health problems, study finds

By Shannon Kelleher

Long-term exposure to a cocktail of common air pollutants, even at low levels, is associated with increased risk for depression and anxiety, according to a new study published this week.

The study, which followed more than 389,000 adults in the UK for more than a decade, adds to growing research examining the relationship between air quality and mental health, and supports calls from health and environmental advocates for urgent action to address air pollution.

People living in areas where the air contains higher levels of nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxides and other harmful particulate matter were at greater risk for being diagnosed with depression or anxiety over the course of the study. The nitrogen contaminants primarily get into the air from the burning of fuel, including from emissions produced by vehicles and power plants.

Notably, the results pointed to elevated anxiety and depression risk even at levels of air pollution considered acceptable by UK air quality standards, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry,

“Our findings warrant that more strict air quality standards on a globe scale should be adopted based on the new [World Health Organization (WHO)] guidelines to alleviate the disease burden of depression and anxiety related to multiple air pollutants,” Jing Huang and Guoxing Li, researchers at the Peking University Health Science Center in China and two authors of the study, said in an email to The New Lede.