Previous research has linked air pollution to numerous diseases such as lung cancer, tuberculosis, low birth weight, asthma, and cataracts. Children are particularly at risk due to the immaturity of their respiratory organ systems. Now, according to a new study by JAMA Psychiatry, psychiatric experiences are more common in teens who are exposed to high levels of nitrogen dioxide and other forms of air pollution.
Joanne Newbury, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at King’s College London, along with her co-authors used data from more than 2000 participants who were all born in England and Wales in 1994 and 1995. Each child was interviewed at age 5, 7, 10, 12, and most recently at 18 about whether they have heard voices that others can’t hear, along with other psychosis-related questions. The study found that a total of 623 (or 30 percent) of the teens reported at least one psychotic experience between the ages of 12 and 18.
The study found teens living in urban areas have “94 percent greater odds of psychotic experiences compared to those living in rural settings.” However, Newbury cautioned that pollution is not the sole cause of psychosis in teens, but that the study’s focal aim was to find an association between air pollution and psychosis.
Nevertheless, by comparing the air pollution index to Sina Weibo data based on the sentiment in the contents of 210 million geotagged tweets, the department of Urban and Planning Studies at MIT and Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources at the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that high levels of air pollution in China may contribute to the low level of happiness reported by people living in urban settings. The results were published online on Nature Human Behavior on January 21 this year.
How can parents help to mitigate the psychological effect of air pollution on their children? Dr. Dorothy Dexter, a family medicine physician at Beijing United Family Hospital, suggested we should do our best to protect ourselves from air pollution, but it’s important not to lose sight of the greater foe and to make sure we avoid alcohol and cigarette smoke, eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, spend quality time with friends and family, and exercise regularly. The good thing is that these are factors we have direct control over.