When we think about children’s mental health triggers, we tend to blame the strains of social media, overscheduling and trauma. And to be clear, those are all contributing factors. But a new study suggests what’s in the air could have acute impacts, too. And depending on the neighborhood you live in, the air children’s mental health-air pollution threat could be very real.
The latest alarm bells stem from a 2019 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives. Researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati found an association between short-term exposure to ambient air pollution and a spike in psychiatric disorders in children.
Although the pollution levels fell within an acceptable range according to the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards, they still seemed to induce “psychiatric exacerbations” in children who were taken to the emergency department with symptoms of conditions like depression, schizophrenia and suicidality.
Major Takeaways of the Children’s Mental Health-Air Pollution Study
For this five-year study conducted in Cincinnati, researchers analyzed the connection between ambient air pollution and mental health disorders in children.
But let’s back up for one second. What is ambient air pollution, exactly? This is when atmospheric air contains potentially harmful pollutants emitted by industry, households, cars and trucks, according to the World Health Organization.
The WHO warns that fine particulate matter in air pollution poses the greatest effects on human health. Most fine particulate matter comes from fuel combustion emitted from vehicles, power plants, households and more.
For the study, monitored and evaluated exposures to ambient particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 microns or less.
Here are the major takeaways from the study:
Researchers measured pediatric emergency room visits in Hamilton County, Ohio, during a five-year period. During this period, 13,176 pediatric psychiatric visits occurred.
The most frequent categories of psychiatric conditions included depressive disorders, externalizing disorders, impulse control disorders, personality disorder, PTSD symptoms, schizophrenia and suicidality.
Data indicates significant associations between an increase in ambient particulate matter and any psychiatric visit.
When grouped by psychiatric encounter type, data shows that increased air pollution was significantly associated with emergency department visits related to schizophrenia on the same day of exposure, adjustment disorder and suicidality one day after exposure, and other mood disorders two days after exposure.
Children living in disadvantaged neighborhoods proved to be more susceptible to the detrimental effects of air pollution, especially for mental health disorders related to anxiety and suicidal thoughts/plans. This suggests that pollution exposure and neighborhood stressors may have synergistic effects on mental health disorders.
Where Is It Coming From?
One of the scariest facts about this recent children’s mental health-air pollution study is that all daily exposures to air pollution registered below the National Ambient Air Quality Standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The study measured what’s called “fine particulate matter” in the air. This type of air pollution is known to have the greatest effect on human health. It’s composed of inhalable particles made up of sulphate, ammonia, nitrates, black carbon, sodium chloride, mineral dust and water.
The smaller the particles get — like when they’re less than 2.5 microns, the greater the health risk after exposure. This is because smaller particles are more able to penetrate our lungs and enter the bloodstream.
According to the World Health Organization, the major sources of outdoor air pollution include the following:
•fuel combustion from cars, trucks and heavy duty vehicles
•industrial activities, such as building, mining and smelting
•heat and powder generation from power plants (both oil and coal) and boilers
•industrial facilities, including manufacturing factories, oil refineries and mines
•waste sites, both municipal and agricultural
•use of pollutant fuels for heating homes and cooking
Particulate matter is also present in indoor air pollution, from cooking, mold, household products, furnishings and paint.
Exposure to these types of air pollution are dangerous for all humans, but can be particularly harmful for children and adolescents.
Children are more likely to be exposed to air pollution because they generally spend more time outdoors, engaging in physical activity. And compared to adults, they breathe more air per pound of body weight.
What to Do About It
The EPA offers a few recommendations for people experiencing exposure to high levels of fine particle pollution.