Air Pollution Linked to Depression and Suicide Risk: Global Study
Mon, April 19, 2021

Air Pollution Linked to Depression and Suicide Risk: Global Study

Living in places with a high level of air pollution increases the risk of depression and suicide, a global study has found / Photo by: David Stewart via Flickr

 

Living in places with a high level of air pollution increases the risk of depression and suicide, a global study has found.

University College of London (UCL)  researchers reviewed nine studies that analyze the link between mental health and emissions. They found that reducing air pollution globally can prevent millions of people from being depressed.

How Toxic Air Impacts People’s Mental Health

The researchers analyzed the particle pollution produced by fossil fuels formed by industries, homes, and vehicles. Those exposed to small airborne pollutants called PM2.5 (0.0025 millimeters of particles) are at higher risk of depression. In air quality reports, PM2.5 is an atmospheric particulate matter that is about 3% the diameter of a human hair. The particles are so small that they can only be detected using an electron microscope.

The fine particles may be emitted by power plants, forest fires, dust storms, volcanic eruptions, airplanes, motor vehicles, and residential wood burning. They are dangerous because they are so light and small that humans and animals have a chance of inhaling them into their bodies. It can bypass the throat or nose and can penetrate the circulatory system or go deep into the lungs.

PM2.5 Reaching the Brain

A 2016 study also revealed that toxic nanoparticles were detected in the brain tissue of 37 people. This leads to the conclusion that PM2.5 can also reach the brain and can potentially damage the nerve cells and cause changes in one's stress hormone production, which is closely associated with poor mental health, explained UCL’s lead author of the study Isobel Braithwaite.

The researchers believe the importance of meeting the air quality standards set by the European Environment Agency to prevent nearly 15% of all cases of depression if they assume the causal relationship between air pollution and medical illness. 

Braithwaite and colleagues explained via The Irish Times that exposure to PM10, which is a slightly larger particulate matter of 10 micrometers in size, was also linked to a person’s increased risk of suicide. 

Braithwaite, who is a part of the Institute of Health Informatics and UCL Psychiatry, warned the public that air pollution is also linked to other physical health risks, such as stroke, lung disease, and heart disease. For their recent study, they highlighted the substantial harm that air pollution is causing people's mental health and the need for urgent action to clean the environment and air that we breathe.

Those living in UK cities are said to be exposed to 12.8 micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter. This is why the group urged the lowering of average air pollution levels based on the recommended limit of the European Environment Agency and the World Health Organization (WHO).

In its site, WHO said that 91% of the world’s population in 2016 was living in places where the air quality guidelines they provide were not met. They stated that investments and policies that support energy-efficient homes, cleaner transport, improved municipal waste management, and power generation can help reduce outdoor air pollution.

Suicide Risk, “Measurably Higher”

WHO also published in September that about 800,000 people in the world die every year due to suicide, and for every suicide, other people attempt to take their own lives every year. Among 15 to 19-year-olds, suicide is the third leading cause of death and 79% of suicides in the world happen in low and middle-income countries.

German database company Statista also shared that suicide rates among men are higher than women in most countries around the world. Russia has the highest rate of 48.3 cases per 100,000 population in 2016. On the other hand, India has the highest suicide rate among women with 14.5 cases. 

After Russia, other countries with high suicide rates among men are Ukraine, South Korea, Poland, Belgium, and Iceland. 

The UCL scientists pointed out in their study that suicide risk is “measurably higher” on days when levels of PM10 were higher. The researchers measured a 2% increase in suicide risk for every 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in the pollution level. The group explained that people exposed to a high level of air pollution have increased levels of inflammation in their brains, which are associated with mental health issues that impact their brain development.

WHO also published in September that about 800,000 people in the world die every year due to suicide, and for every suicide, other people attempt to take their own lives every year / Photo by: ryan melaugh via Flickr

 

Pregnant Women’s Exposure to Fine Particles

The previous study by the Columbia University researchers also showed that babies exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) while they are in the womb have a higher chance of suffering mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. PAHs are more than 100 chemicals released from tobacco, wood, trash, gasoline, oil, and burning coil. High-temperature cooking, like grilling, also form PAHs in meat and other foods. This was detailed in the National Library of Medicine’s platform about toxic chemicals, Tox Town.

There are things we can do to take action and lessen our exposure to airborne particles, such as prohibiting smoking at home, keeping the air clean, and closing our doors and windows. These actions not only protect our physical health but our mental wellbeing as well.