Can Air Pollution Impact Your Mental Health?

We’ve all heard the startling facts about air pollution before. World Health Organization (WHO) data shows that 9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.

From smog hanging over cities to smoke inside the home, air pollution poses a major threat to our health and climate. The combined effects of outdoor and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections. Researchers are investigating other impacts of air pollution, as they examine connections between diabetes and obesity. Now, add to that growing list: psychological distress.

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A study by the University of Washington found that the higher the level of particulates in the air, the greater the impact on mental health. The study looked for a direct connection between toxic air and mental health, relying on respondents from a national study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). This study included 6,006 PSID respondents who were interviewed at least once and up to 6 times between 1999 and 2011.

Researchers then merged an air pollution database, derived from EPA’s Air Quality System, with records corresponding to the neighborhoods of each of the 6,006 PSID survey participants, specifically honing in on measurements of fine particulate matter (PM). The study measured participants psychological distress, assessing how often an individual felt sad, nervous, restless, hopeless, worthless, or “that everything was an effort” during the previous 30 days.

The study found that the risk of psychological distress increased alongside the amount of fine PM in the air. For example, in areas with high levels of pollution (21 micrograms per cubic meter), psychological distress scores were 17% higher than in areas with low levels of pollution (5 micrograms per cubic meter).

Public health efforts to reduce the personal and societal costs of mental illness should consider addressing not only individual characteristics and factors in the social environment, but also the physical environment, such as air pollution.

What Can You Do?

There are many ways to protect yourself from the potentially harmful effects of air pollution:

1. Monitor your indoor and local air quality

  • Knowing when concentrations of pollutants spike can help you learn when to stay indoors to avoid outdoor pollution and determine what areas of your home may contain high levels of pollutants.
  • Pay attention to the weather and when it contributes to poor air quality, and close your windows or stay inside when conditions warrant.
  • Request air monitoring equipment from EHP that tracks pollutants inside and outside your home.

2. Keep the air you’re breathing inside your home clean by using an air filter

There are many types of air filters for home use. EHP recommends the Austin Air HealthMate because it removes chemicals, small particles, odors, and dust from inside air. This portable unit can easily be moved from room to room and works best in homes that are well air-sealed. Although an air filtration system like the HealthMate is optimal, there are other low cost options available. Reducing Outdoor Contaminants in Indoor Spaces (ROCIS) offers a DIY, low cost fan/filter to remove particles in the air. (Note: During the pandemic, if you anticipate that people carrying a respiratory infection might enter your home, you may want to avoid moving air around, as it’s believed that doing so may contribute to spreading the virus.)

3. Remove avoidable indoor air pollutants

  • Keep your home as free of dust as possible since harmful gases and particles can adhere to dust particles.
  • Clean or dust using damp, disposable cloths to reduce the chance that contaminants will end up back in your air. Work from the top down.
  • Vacuum rather than sweep with a broom to reduce airborne particles. Vacuum at least once a week and use a HEPA filter in your vacuum to remove as many particles from the air as possible.
  • Avoid bringing contaminated dirt and dust into your home by removing shoes, coats, and hats when you come indoors. Ask guests to do the same.
  • Keep windows and doors closed and use an air conditioner if you have one, to help keep outdoor air outside.

4. Seek mental health treatment, if needed

Keep in mind that you do not need to deal with this on your own. You may find it helpful to work with a licensed mental health professional to help develop strategies to deal with the mental health impacts of air pollution.

5. Contact your elected officials and local representatives to demand better rules and regulations on industries that pollute the air

COVID-19 forced governments to act. The same sense of urgency needs to be applied to tackling air pollution, a health problem with a clear and actionable solution.

For assistance or more tips and information, please contact EHP at 724-260-5504 or by email at info [at] environmentalhealthproject.org, or visit EHP’s website.

The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that defends public health in the face of oil and gas development. We provide frontline communities with timely monitoring, interpretation, and guidance. We engage diverse stakeholders: health professionals, researchers, community organizers, public servants, and others. We do so because knowledge protects health.

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