Dear EarthTalk: Are there any proven links between exposure to pollution and mental health problems? – John C., Scranton, PA
Mental health and environment are two issues often in the spotlight, though not often associated together. But some researchers have begun to find links between increases in polluted air, water and soil and growing mental health problems throughout our society.
Several recent studies showed that exposure to high levels of air pollutants, like fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, is linked to higher risks of mental health problems. Several studies have found that long-term exposure to air pollution can increase risks of depression, anxiety and even neurodevelopmental disorders in children. Harvard researchers recently concluded that long-term exposure to air pollution correlates to late-life depression in older Americans. More studies are needed, but researchers believe that the inflammation and oxidative stress caused by air pollution likely affects mental health negatively.
Emerging research also suggests that air pollution may have adverse effects on cognitive abilities, including memory and decision-making. These impairments can, in turn, contribute to stress and anxiety. Exposure to contaminants like lead, arsenic and pesticides in drinking water can have neurotoxic effects, too, leading to behavioral and cognitive problems in both children and adults and contributing to the development of mental health issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression.
Noise pollution, often overlooked but pervasive in urban areas, can also harm mental well-being. Chronic exposure to noise pollution can lead to increased stress levels, sleep disturbances and heightened anxiety and depression. Noise pollution’s negative impact on mental health is compounded by its association with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, which can further contribute to mental health problems.
Environmental justice aspects of pollution and mental health are at issue, too. Low-income communities and marginalized populations are often disproportionately exposed to pollution due to factors such as proximity to industrial facilities and limited access to green spaces. Consequently, these communities face a higher burden of mental health issues linked to pollution, exacerbating existing health disparities.
Addressing these concerns requires concerted efforts on multiple fronts. Governments and regulatory bodies must prioritize air and water quality standards, enforce pollution controls and invest in cleaner technologies. Individuals can reduce their personal exposure by using air purifiers and cleaner transportation options, and advocating for clean energy policies. Also, mental health services need to incorporate environmental factors into their assessment and treatment plans. Healthcare professionals should be trained to recognize the potential role of pollution in mental health problems.
CONTACTS: Association of Long-term Exposure to Air Pollution With Late-Life Depression in Older Adults in the U.S., jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2801241; Growing Evidence for the Impact of Air Pollution on Depression, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6447209/; Pollution and our mental health, ehn.org/air-pollution-and-mental-health-2656823544.html; Air pollution can alter our brains in ways that increase mental illness risk, ehn.org/air-pollution-mental-illness-2655532520.html; Is there a link between air pollution and mental health? iqair.com/us/newsroom/air-pollution-and-mental-health.