The global mental health crisis is only getting worse as we pollute the air more. A research paper that had involved 13,000 people in the city of London found that mental illnesses were exacerbated by exposure to air pollution. The research found that even a relatively small increase in exposure to nitrogen dioxide leads to a 32 percent increase for people needing community-based treatment. The risk of being admitted to the hospital was as high as 18 percent.
The research paper was authored by Ioannis Bakolis of London’s King’s College and his team for the University of Bristol.
The researchers examined the frequency of admissions in hospitals and allied health services to understand and measure the severity of mental illnesses. It was found that a small reduction in one pollutant alone could reduce illness and save the NHS tens of millions of pounds a year.
The World Bank estimates air pollution costs the global economy over $5 trillion a year in associated health costs. If the exposure to air pollution is curtailed to just a few units for each person, the UK's urban population could cut the use of mental health services by 2 percent.
The scientists further stressed these findings were likely to apply to most cities in developed nations too, and the mere reduction of air pollution would benefit millions of people.
Bakolis said that though the levels of air pollution in London has fallen in recent years, the impact is felt even at low levels of air pollution.
Research has shown small increases in air pollution causes significant rises in depression, anxiety, suicides, and mental disorders in people growing up in the area. Also, air pollution causes a huge reduction in intelligence and contributes to dementia. A review in 2019 stated air pollution could even lead to damaging every single organ in the body.
The study, which was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, is not meant to directly link air pollution and the severity of mental illness. It instead links air pollutants that contain potent inflammatory properties to mental illness as these inflammation properties lead to psychotic and mood disorders. Substantiating their claim, the research team says there is a “biologically plausible” reason for their findings.
“Cost evaluations currently only factor in physical health, but we’re seeing more studies demonstrating links with mental health,” said Joanne Newbury, from the University of Bristol who was also a part of the research team.