Three studies link air pollution in U.S. to serious mental health issues in children

  • Research “first to show association between daily outdoor air pollution, increased symptoms of psychiatric disorders” among kids.
  • ‘Smog-induced feelings of anxiety and suicidal thoughts’ more prevalent in children living in poorer neighborhoods.

CINCINNATI — Exposure to polluted air, or smog, can result in a number of physical health problems. There have also been numerous studies associating smog and contaminated air with increased rates of depression and anxiety among certain population samples. Now, three studies have found that exposure to air pollution may be especially detrimental to children’s mental health.

All three studies were conducted by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, in collaboration with the University of Cincinnati.

Among children already dealing with a mental health issue, short-term exposure to air pollution was found to result in an exacerbation of symptoms just one to two days later. Researchers were able to come to that conclusion by observing increased activity in the Cincinnati Children’s psychiatric emergency department following periods of increased air pollution in the area.

The same study also found that children living in poorer Cincinnati neighborhoods may be more susceptible to smog-induced feelings of anxiety and suicidal thoughts, compared to other children living in better off neighborhoods.

“This study is the first to show an association between daily outdoor air pollution levels and increased symptoms of psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and suicidality, in children,” says Dr. Cole Brokamp, the study’s lead author, in a release. “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.”

A second study found a connection between children recently exposed to traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) and more intense feelings of generalized anxiety. This study was the first of its kind to utilize neuro-imaging to capture TRAP exposure, subsequent metabolic disturbances in children’s brains, and the resulting anxiety symptoms. Furthermore, researchers discovered elevated levels myoinositol in studied children’s brains, a sign of neuro-inflammatory reactions to TRAP exposure.

Building off of the second study’s findings regarding TRAP, a third study discovered that prolonged exposure to TRAP during childhood was significantly associated with self-diagnosed bouts of depression and anxiety among 12-year olds. Prior studies had come to similar conclusions among adults, but this study was the first to illustrate a clear connection between TRAP exposure in early childhood and subsequent mental health issues.

“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,” comments Dr. Patrick Ryan, a lead author on the first and third study. “More research is needed to replicate these findings and uncover underlying mechanisms for these associations.”

The first study is published in Environmental Health Perspectives. The second and third study are both published in Environmental Research.

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