A Day’s Exposure to Toxic Air Can Worsen Children’s Psychiatric Disorders


Oct 9, 2019


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Air pollution can exacerbate psychiatric disorders in children within just one to two days of exposure, according to a new study by scientists at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Cincinnati, in the U.S.

The study also found that children living in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods are more vulnerable to the negative psychatric effects of air pollution on mental health — especially to anxiety disorders and suicidal ideations, plan, and attempts — as compared to other, more privileged children.

Published in Environmental Health Perspectives and co-authored by researchers Cole Brokamp, Ph.D., and Patrick Ryan, Ph.D., the study came to this conclusion by scrutinizing the marked increase in admissions to the Cincinnati Children’s emergency department for psychiatric issues.

While previous studies have linked exposure to air pollution to an increased likelihood of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and personality disorders in adults, this is the first study to show an association between daily outdoor air pollution levels and increased symptoms of psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and suicidal behavior, in children.

“More research is needed to confirm these findings, but it could lead to new prevention strategies for children experiencing symptoms related to a psychiatric disorder. The fact that children living in high-poverty neighborhoods experienced greater health effects of air pollution could mean that pollutant and neighborhood stressors can have synergistic effects on psychiatric symptom severity and frequency,” Dr. Brokamp said in a press release.

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Two other Cincinnati Children’s studies, published in the journal Environmental Research, further solidified the link between air pollution and children’s mental health. The first found an association between exposure to traffic-related air pollution and higher levels of generalized anxiety. The second found that exposure to traffic pollution was associated with self-reported depression and anxiety symptoms in 12-year-olds.

These studies reiterate what we intuitively already know and what scientific research is slowly beginning to uncover: air pollution is nothing but very bad news for the human body. Air pollution has been linked to low moods and poor emotional health and the poor health of our mouths and throatslungs, and reproductive systems. Research on the negative impact of air pollution has recently been expanding in scope to study how it disproportionately affects children — studies have found that exposure to toxic air can lead to a cognitive delay in children, lower IQs and even shave off close to two years of their life expectancy.

“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,” Dr. Ryan said in the press release. “More research is needed to replicate these findings and uncover underlying mechanisms for these associations,” he said, meaning these conclusions imply only a correlation between air pollution and psychiatric disorders in children — not causation. Admittedly, science is still in its nascent stage in this field, but judging by the list of associations we already have on our hands, we’re quite possibly on breath row as we inhale-exhale.


Written By Pallavi Prasad

Pallavi Prasad is The Swaddle’s Features Editor. When she isn’t fighting for gender justice and being righteous, you can find her dabbling in street and sports photography, reading philosophy, drowning in green tea, and procrastinating on doing the dishes.


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