When most people think about the risks associated with air pollution, respiratory issues are the first that come to mind. In fact, in 20161 outdoor and inside air pollution contributed to respiratory infections resulting in 543,000 deaths in children under 5. However, the respiratory system is not the only one affected by this.
The World Health Organization reported on published studies from dozens of top experts, which revealed some of the health risks for children that are associated with air pollution. These included obesity, asthma, childhood cancers, infant mortality and adverse birth outcomes. Evidence also suggests exposure before birth increases the risk of cardiovascular and lung disease later in life.
A study by the American Thoracic Society2 that was presented at the 2017 International Conference suggested air pollution may also reduce sleep quality. There are a number of health repercussions associated with sleep deprivation and poor quality sleep.
These include an increased risk of accidents,3 cardiovascular disease,4 high blood pressure,5 cancer6 and osteoporosis.7 Researchers have also investigated the bidirectional relationship between sleep and depression, finding that when sleep quality improves, it lessens depression symptoms.8
Global Studies Link Air Pollution to Suicide and Depression
Air pollution is measured by the size of the particulate matter. Fine particulate matter measures less than 2.5 micrograms (PM2.5) in diameter and is a good indicator of outdoor air pollution. PM2.5 is the focus of many studies.
The particles are important as they are small enough to be inhaled into the lungs and absorbed into the bloodstream.9 Once in your body they may deposit in any organ system, including the brain. In recent research, scientists have associated acute exposure to PM2.5 with increased psychiatric emergency room visits for children who are having anxiety and/or have attempted suicide.10
In a meta-analysis of recent studies by a team from Cambridge University11 it was found that elevated exposure to PM2.5 yielded a 19% increase in the risk of depression for children, as well as a small increased risk for suicide. They evaluated results from 14 studies and 684,859 participants and determined that PM10 was not linked to depression or suicide, indicating the particulate matter may be too large to be absorbed into the bloodstream and affect the brain.
However, in a separate analysis of data from 16 countries researchers reported that an increase in PM2.5 and PM10 was associated with depression and increased numbers of suicide.12
The systematic review and meta-analysis13 was published in December 2019 in Environmental Health Perspectives. One study author, Isobel Braithwaite from University College of London, commented on the results:
“We already know that air pollution is bad for people’s health, with numerous physical health risks ranging from heart and lung disease to stroke and a higher risk of dementia. Here, we’re showing that air pollution could be causing substantial harm to our mental health as well, making the case for cleaning up the air we breathe even more urgent.
We found quite consistent results across the studies we reviewed that analysed the relationship between long-term air pollution exposure and depression, even after adjustment for many other factors which could explain the association. The association seems to be similar in magnitude to those that have been found for some physical health impacts of particulate matter, such as all-cause mortality.”
Meeting EU Pollution Limit May Have Global Effect
There was also a connection between PM10 particulate matter exposure and the number of suicides reported in the studies. Researchers found the risk was significantly higher on days after a three-day period when levels of PM10 were higher, rather than after less polluted time periods.
In these studies, confounding factors such as weather changes and the day of the week did not account for short-term changes in suicide risk, nor did socioeconomic factors or neighborhoods. The evidence was stronger for suicide with PM10 and less for depression. Another study author, Joseph Hayes, said:
“Our findings correspond with other studies that have come out this year, with further evidence in young people and in other mental health conditions. While we cannot yet say that this relationship is causal, the evidence is highly suggestive that air pollution itself increases the risk of adverse mental health outcomes.
A lot of what we can do to reduce air pollution can also benefit our mental health in other ways, such as enabling people to cycle or walk rather than drive, and enhancing access to parks, so this adds support to the promotion of active travel and urban green spaces.”
The scientists hypothesized that if the relationship were causal, the global risk of depression could go down by 15% if exposure was reduced from PM 2.5 from 44 µg/m3 to 25 µg/m3. The global levels of PM 2.5 ranged from 114 µg/m3 in Delhi to 6 µg/m3 in Ottawa, Canada.
Within the U.K., they found the average level was 12.8 µg/m3. The WHO recommends a limit of 10 µg/m3, which the researchers estimated could reduce the risk of depression by about 2.5%. While the goal of the WHO is 10 µg/m3, even meeting the less stringent EU guideline of 25 µg/m3 could have a significant global impact on mental and physical health. Braithwaite went on to say:14
“We know that the finest particulates from dirty air can reach the brain via both the bloodstream and the nose, and that air pollution has been implicated in increased [brain] inflammation, damage to nerve cells and to changes in stress hormone production, which have been linked to poor mental health.”
Premature Death in Seniors Linked to Air Pollution
A second vulnerable population is the elderly. Harvard researchers15 released a study in 2017 in which they described finding long-term exposure to PM 2.5 and ozone increased the risk of early death. This occurred even when air pollution levels were below the National Ambient Air Quality standards set by the EPA.
Lowering the level of PM 2.5 by just 1 µg/m3 was estimated to save 12,000 lives every year. The researchers used Medicare claims of 60 million people in the U.S. over age 65 through a 7-year period. The extensive base of information on which the findings were based resulted in the researchers calling it “a study of unprecedented statistical power because of the massive size of the study population.”
Pollution Lowers IQ and Damages Life Expectancy
As might be expected, PM2.5 doesn’t affect just mood or the cardiovascular system. Data16 collected in China revealed that language and arithmetic skills were affected to such an extent that for each person affected, it was like losing a full year of education.
According to researcher Derek Ho, Ph.D., from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the results of the study are like the results from his study. He believes the effect of air pollution on cognition is important and may occur as it “can potentially be associated with oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and neurodegeneration of humans.”17
The estimated number dying an early death from exposure to air pollution is nearly double the previous estimate.18 This new data show air pollution caused 8.8 million premature deaths in 2015. Comparatively speaking, WHO19 estimates the global number of premature deaths from smoking is 7 million per year, less than the number killed by air pollution.
Precautions May Limit Exposure to Air Pollution
There are significant physical and mental health risks associated with exposure to air pollution that may shorten your life and impede your ability to live independently as you age. It is wise to take precautions to limit your exposure to pollution outdoors and inside your home.
- Limit outdoor exercise during peak commuting hours
- Avoid running or riding your bike along major highways
- Pay attention to the Air Quality Index (AQI) in your local area
- In heavy traffic, pull air from inside the car for heating and air conditioning
- Regularly air out your car, especially if it’s new. Plastics, carpet, solvents and audio equipment contribute to a chemically toxic mix in your car’s cabin. For more information see, “What’s in That New Car Smell?“
Indoor pollution can be just as dangerous as the PM2.5 and PM10 you inhale outdoors. To reduce energy expenditure most new homes are more airtight than ever before, which means you don’t get as much air exchange. Consider these strategies to reduce your exposure:
Install a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter on your furnace and/or air conditioning unit.
Vacuum regularly using a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner. Standard bag or bagless vacuum cleaners are a major contributor to poor indoor air quality. Beware of cheaper knock-offs that profess to have “HEPA-like” filters — get the real deal.
Switch to nontoxic cleaning products (such as baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and vinegar) and safer personal care products. Avoid aerosols, commercial air fresheners and scented candles, which can out-gas thousands of different chemicals. Strategies in “Are Household Products Killing Us?” may help reduce your toxic load.
Houseplants can markedly improve the air indoors. For tips and guidelines, see “The 10 Best Pollution-Busting Houseplants.”
Avoid powders, as they float and linger in the air after each use. Many are allergens due to their tiny size and may cause respiratory problems.
Take your shoes off in the house by the door to prevent tracking in toxic particles.
Hang dry-cleaned clothes outside for a day or two to allow the chemicals to dissipate.
Don’t smoke or vape.
Ensure your combustion appliances are properly vented.
Avoid storing paints, adhesives, solvents and other harsh chemicals in your house or in an attached garage.
Eliminate using nonstick cookware, which can release toxins into the air when heated.
Create cross ventilation by opening windows for as little as 15 minutes each day to improve the quality of air you’re breathing. An attic fan may reduce your air conditioning costs and bring in fresh outdoor air.
A high-quality air purifier using photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) is one of the best technologies available. Rather than merely filtering the air, PCO cleans the air using ultraviolet light. PCO transforms the pollutants into nontoxic substances. In addition to using them in your home, portable air purifiers are available to take with you when you work or travel.
Reduce airborne chlorine during a bath or shower with a water filter rated NSF/ANSI 177, which is tested by a third party to for chlorine removal.20
Test for radon, a colorless, odorless gas linked to lung cancer. It can get trapped under your home during construction and may leak into your air system over time. Radon testing kits are a quick and cheap way to determine if you are at risk.