Spikes in air pollution ‘can disrupt children’s mental health’

Spikes in air pollution ‘can disrupt children’s mental health’

Spikes in air pollution ‘trigger rises in the number of children needing emergency hospital treatment for anxiety or suicidal thoughts’

  • Effects appeared even when pollution levels were lower than ‘dangerous’ limits 
  • The risk of being taken to hospital with suicidal thoughts rose by 44 per cent 
  • Scientists said their findings added to those in other recent studies on pollution

Air pollution could disrupt children’s mental health and worsen symptoms of conditions such as depression and anxiety, a study has found.

Even being exposed for a short time to levels of pollution too low to officially be considered dangerous could have an effect.

The risk of a child being taken to hospital because they had suicidal thoughts was found to increase by 44 per cent after a spike in air pollution. 

The link is believed to be caused by toxic particles in the air contributing to damaging swelling in the children’s brains, known as inflammation.

Air pollution contains toxic chemicals which can cause swelling in the brain, contributing to the symptoms of mental health problems, according to research (stock image)

Scientists from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio compared emergency room admissions data with outdoor pollution levels around the children’s homes.

The study covered a four-year period from 2011 to 2015 and included details from 13,176 child hospital visits to psychiatrists. 

They found that short-term exposure to air pollution was linked to worsening of psychiatric disorders in children one to two days later.

A spike of 10 micrograms per cubic metre (ug-m3) of PM2.5 – the finest type of particulate matter – was enough to have an impact, the study said.

This was noticeable in a sudden increase in the number of patients coming to Cincinnati Children’s emergency department for psychiatric issues.

Because it was an observational study, the researchers couldn’t prove it was the air pollution causing the admissions, but suggested the two may be linked.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb  performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.

DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.

MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution. 

CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.

RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’

CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.

MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said. 

LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.

RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.  

RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing. 

DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth. 

MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.

MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION:  Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction. 

RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.

MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.

CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.

‘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,’ said one of the lead authors, Dr Cole Brokamp, a doctor at the hospital. 

‘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 research also found that children living in poorer areas were more likely to suffer the mental health consequences of bad air quality.

Overall, children with a mental health problem were seven per cent more likely to need to go to A&E because of that disorder a day after a spike in local PM2.5 air pollution, the study found.

For those seen for symptoms of adjustment disorder – which is characterised by distress, hopelessness and severe sadness – the risk rose by 24 per cent.

The likelihood of being seen at an emergency department for suicidal feelings rose by nearly half.

Children in deprived areas, however, saw an almost double – 98 per cent increase – in their risk of needing to go to hospital because of suicidal feelings.

And the poorer children also faced a 39 per cent bigger likelihood of needing treatment for symptoms of anxiety.

The researchers noticed the effects even at PM2.5 pollution levels which were below the World Health Organization’s danger threshold of 25 micrograms per cubic metre over a 24-hour period.

Dr Brokamp said: ‘The fact children living in high poverty neighbourhoods experienced greater health effects of air pollution could mean pollutant and neighbourhood stressors can have [compounding] effects on psychiatric symptom severity and frequency.’

The analysis, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, follows two recent studies at the same hospital that highlighted the relationship.

Dr Brokamp’s colleague, Dr Patrick Ryan, said: ‘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.

‘More research is needed to replicate these findings and uncover underlying mechanisms for these associations.’

They may shed fresh light on the alarming rise in depression and suicide rates among young people.

Earlier this year a US study found depression among 14 to 17-year-olds had increased by more than 60 per cent in less than a decade.

The increases were nearly as steep among those aged 12 and 13 (47 per cent) and 18 to 21 (46 per cent).

In 2017 more than one in eight Americans aged 12 to 25 experienced a major depressive episode.

Similar trends have been identified in the UK. NHS figures show one in eight people under the age of 19 in England had a mental disorder in 2017, rising to one in six for 17 to 19-year-olds.

The number of teenage suicides in England and Wales have increased by 67 per cent in eight years.

In 2017 alone, 187 under-19s took their own lives, compared with 162 the year before – a rise of 15 per cent. At the start of the decade, the figure stood at 112.

The phenomenon has been blamed on the growth of smartphones, social media, texting and gaming.

Air pollution has previously been linked to depression and bipolar disorder in adults.

But in May, a Cincinatti Children’s team linked it to anxiety in 12-year-olds for the first time.

A study found those living near a busy road were more susceptible because of the toxic effect of traffic pollution on the developing brain.

Scans showed they had higher levels of myoinositol, a naturally occurring sugar that is a sign of anxiety. This was compared to those from quieter, less polluted streets.

Fine particles and other exhaust pollutants are known to cause inflammation in organs and especially in the developing brain, said the researchers.

It was the first study to use brain scans to link traffic pollution with metabolic disturbances in grey matter and general anxiety symptoms in otherwise healthy children.

That same month Dr Ryan and colleagues found a significant link between high exposure to vehicle exhaust fumes in childhood and self reported depression and anxiety by the age of 12.

Similar findings have been reported in adults, but research showing clear connections in children has been limited.

More than 80 per cent of the world’s urban population is breathing unsafe levels of air pollution.

Described as an invisible killer, it causes an estimated seven million premature deaths a year worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation.

Pollution is also fuelling increases in degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, health experts fear.

Previous studies have found air pollution has a negative impact on students’ cognitive abilities.

Many pollutants are thought to directly affect brain chemistry in a variety of ways. For instance, particulate matter from traffic and industry can carry toxins through small passageways and directly enter the brain.

Some of these pollutants can have a psychological impact, increasing the risk of depression.

WHAT IS AIR POLLUTION?

Emissions

Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 

Particulates

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 

 

Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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