Linked to major depression – 66%; bipolar disorder – 32%; schizophrenia – 23%

Exposure to environmental, air pollution increases risk for mental disorders — Study

By Chioma Obinna

Medical experts have been puzzled by the increasing prevalence of mental disorders and suicide globally particularly as the rate of suicide has increased in recent times and is now a public health emergency in Nigeria.

However, latest developments in the scientific and medical field have given pointers to some of the possible factors responsible for this trend if new findings by researchers are anything to go by.

While it has for long been suspected that environmental health and mental health could be connected in some way, scientists have only just established a definite relationship between air pollution and mental health in children, even as they also linked environmental pollution with increased risk of psychiatric disorders.

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Three new studies by scientists at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Cincinnati, highlight the relationship between air pollution and mental health in children.

One of the studies published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that short-term exposure to ambient air pollution was associated with increases of psychiatric disorders in children one to two days later, as marked by increased utilisation of the Cincinnati Children’s emergency department for psychiatric issues.

The study also found that children living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods may be more susceptible to the effects of air pollution compared to other children, especially for disorders related to anxiety and suicide.

According to one of the scientists, Dr. Cole Brokamp, “This study is the first to show an association between daily outdoor air pollution levels and increased symptoms of psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and suicide, in children.”

Brokamp said it could lead to new prevention strategies for children experiencing symptoms related to a psychiatric disorder.

“The fact that children living in high poverty neighbourhoods experienced greater health effects of air pollution could mean that pollutant and neighbourhood stressors can have synergistic effects on psychiatric symptom severity and frequency.”

Brokamp, along with his colleague Dr. Patrick Ryan. Who are researchers in the division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital led the study?

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Two other published studies also linked air pollution to children’s mental health.  According to one of the studies published in Environmental Research found an association between recent high Traffic-Related Air Pollution (TRAP) exposure and higher generalized anxiety.

The study is believed to be the first to use neuroimaging to link TRAP exposure, metabolic disturbances in the brain, and generalised anxiety symptoms among otherwise healthy children. The study found higher myoinositol concentrations in the brain — a marker of the brain’s neuroinflammatory response to TRAP.  The lead authors of this other study are Dr. Kelly Brunst,  a researcher in the Department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati, and Dr. Kim Cecil, a researcher at Cincinnati Children’s.

The study found that exposure to TRAP during early life and across childhood was significantly associated with self-reported depression and anxiety symptoms in 12-year-olds.

Similar findings have been reported in adults, but research showing clear connections between TRAP exposure and mental health in children has been limited.

Lead authors of the study are Dr Kimberly Yolton, director of research in the division of General and Community Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s, and Dr Ryan.

Reacting to the study, Ryan said: “Collectively, these studies contribute to the growing body of evidence that exposure to air pollution during early life and childhood may contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems in adolescence.   More research is needed to replicate these findings and uncover underlying mechanisms for these associations.”

In another study published in According to the findings, recent work has identified 145 genome-wide significant associations for schizophrenia.

According to the researchers, it has long been believed that genetic, neurochemical, and environmental factors interact at many different levels to play a role in the onset, severity, and progression of these illnesses.

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In the study, involving four psychiatric and two neurological conditions including bipolar disorder, major depression, personality disorder, schizophrenia, epilepsy, and Parkinson disease, each defined by sets of specific International Classification of Diseases. It was found that environmental pollution was associated with an increased risk of psychiatric disorders in the US and Denmark.  They noted that from a comprehensive twin meta-analysis, the environmental effects contribute to a 55 per cent to 66 per cent risk for major depression, 32 per cent risk for bipolar disorder, and 23 per cent risk for schizophrenia.

Querying what aspects of human environments are driving psychiatric and neurological disease prevalence, the researchers added that recent umbrella reviews of epidemiological studies analyzing putative risk factors associated with common psychiatric and neurological disorders suggest several contributing factors to mental health and well-being, such as individual attributes and behaviour (medical illness, stressful life events, substance abuse, cognitive and/or emotional immaturity), social circumstances (poor access to basic services, unemployment, poverty, neglect, social injustice, relationship conflicts, work stress, exposure to violence, and abuse and environmental factors.

However, far fewer studies have explored the links between physical environments and mental illnesses with a small subset of these specifically focused on environmental pollution or its constituent toxicants Yet concern has been growing about the diverse negative health effects of air pollution, raising the possibility that air quality may play an important role in mental health and cognitive function.


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