written by Elise Miller, MEd
When I spoke with a colleague earlier this week, she said, “Just breathing this air makes me depressed.” She lives in an urban area where high temperatures and heavy smog are the norm at this time of year. I don’t think she meant she was clinically depressed, but her remark may have some physiological truth in it.
Until just recently, most of the research on air pollution has looked at associations with respiratory concerns. Just last week CHE hosted a call on air pollution and asthma [see: Breathing Deep: Air Pollution, Health, and Public Health Policy]. But more recently studies have found links to other health outcomes—including cardiovascular disease, diabetes/obesity, cognitive function, and yes, mental illness.
Last month, a new study suggested that exposure to air pollution in early life may contribute to the onset of schizophrenia and autism. Other research has shown that air pollution may be associated with depression [see: Air Pollution Linked to Learning and Memory Problems, Depression and Smog in our Brains].
These are very preliminary findings, but coupled with studies on the impact pesticide exposure (some airborne) on the neurocognitive function and mental health of farm workers, it is clear this is an area of research that needs further exploration. And I would say the need is rather urgent, given these statistics:
- Depression is the leading cause of one measure of disability, followed by anxiety.
- It is estimated that up to 1 out of 5 children in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year and an estimated $247 billion is spent each year on childhood mental disorders.
- Cumulative mental health issues—depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, among others—cost the U.S. economy about a half-trillion dollars.
Even if air pollution only contributes to a small fraction of mental illness, can you imagine what cleaner air would do to reduce those rates of disease and costs to the economy, not to mention the emotional toll on so many people, including their families and friends? Even the suggestion that this is an issue of ‘jobs versus the environment’ seems almost laughable, if it weren’t so tragic. If people don’t have clean air, then they may not be able to work because they’re either too depressed, in the emergency room with an asthma attack, or disabled by cardiovascular disease. It’s that simple. In this country we may be able to point to having higher air quality than 30 years ago, but as more coal plants are being built in China and more diesel cars and trucks are on the road in India, we are all impacted more than ever before and likely more than we even realize.
I applaud those of you, both in this country and abroad, who are focused on reducing air pollution in a number of important ways—from promoting the development of renewable energy technologies to pressing for stronger regulatory actions. May your initiatives and our collective efforts prevail. And in the meanwhile, I hope all of you are able to take some time away from your desks this summer to be in nature where the breathing is easy—or at least, easier.