Could air pollution be damaging your mental health?

Another lovely day in east London. Image: Getty.

Between 1 and 8 January 2017, London breached its annual air pollution limits. In just a week, the city broke EU regulations that limit nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions, which are produced by diesel vehicles. It is a publishable, verifiable, undeniable scientific fact that this gas is connected to heart and breathing problems. The UK’s air is dirty, and it is prematurely killing us. But can it also make your life more difficult in the meantime?

DepressionanxietyAlzheimer’spoor academic performance – these are just some of the things that scientists have connected to air pollution in recent years. Research is relatively young, and it is dangerous to establish cause and effect too freely, but it now seems apparent that the smog affecting our bodies could also be affecting our brains.

“Our study found that those with higher exposures to fine particulate matter, a type of air pollution, were more likely to experience high anxiety symptom levels,” says Dr Melinda Power, a professor at George Washington University who warns against establishing causality too early. In 2015, Power published her research, which used data from 70,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study who then filled out a survey on their anxiety levels. She discovered that fine particles in the air (which come from, among other things, cars and factories) were connected to increased anxiety levels, and that the more recent the exposure, the higher the level of anxiety experienced.

“As relatively little research has been done on the relationship between air pollution and mental health, further research is needed to confirm our findings,” she says, noting that women in more polluted areas may experience other stresses that caused their anxiety.  

When it comes to identifying a cause for the recent epidemic in mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, often simpler explanations get precedence in the media. The idea that social networks like Facebook “make us” depressed has been flying around for years. This is easy for individuals to identify as an affect on their mental health, if it is affecting them that way. But not many of us stop to consider how the invisible air around us might be affecting our mental health, and it is much harder to find any anecdotal evidence of whether this is the case. For more answers, we must turn to science’s most faithful research assistant: mice.

“We got into this research by accident,” says Dr Randy Nelson, a professor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “I was walking across campus and saw a trailer that was being used to expose mice to particulate matter. The work was being directed by a cardiologist who had demonstrated that exposure to fine airborne particulate matter caused inflammation in the heart.

“It seemed reasonable to hypothesise that exposure to this type of air pollution would also cause inflammation in the brain and that is often associated with depression and cognitive impairments.”

Nelson and his team exposed mice to fine particle air pollution in the same high levels that are found in urban areas. They discovered that, after ten months, mice exposed to polluted air took longer to complete a maze task than mice exposed to filtered air. More incredibly, the “polluted” mice also exhibited depressive symptoms and “behaviour despair”, such as an unwillingness to swim when placed in water. Researchers at Duke University also found pregnant mice exposed to diesel exhaust had offspring who exhibited increased anxiety.

When I ask Nelson if rising levels of air pollution could be causing rising levels of depression, he says it is “possibly a contributing factor” and points towards other environmental factors – such as bright lights at night interrupting our circadian rhythms. Like Power, he feels that more research needs to be done before such wide-reaching conclusions can be drawn.

But just how much research will be enough to prompt us to act? In 2015, scientists at the University of Utah found a link between air pollution and suicide in middle-aged men. It is also already proven that air pollution affects our physical health, and Power notes that this, in turn, can affect us mentally. “Air pollution may be related to mental health, particularly anxiety, through effects on oxidative stress and systemic inflammation or through promotion or aggravation of chronic diseases,” she says. Put simply, being sick can make us depressed.


(Side note: according to the psychologist Dr Ken McLaughlin, the current “politics of fear” can also increase anxiety, so reading about air pollution also probably doesn’t help. Sorry about that.)

And yet while research about how air pollution affects mental health is in its infancy, there is significantly more information about the link between air pollution and cognitive health. Power has found that men with higher past exposures to traffic-related air pollution had worse cognitive functions. An extensive 2012 article by the American Psychological Association outlines the many studies in this area.

So where does that leave us? A spokesperson for the European Commission, which sets our air quality targets, says the World Health Organisation is now reviewing evidence about mental health, and new targets will take this into account. Power says more “big, high-quality, longitudinal studies are needed”, yet Andrea Lee, a healthy air campaigner for ClientEarth, says we need to act sooner rather than later. “As research continues in all of these areas, what is beyond doubt is that air pollution in the UK is above legal limits,” she says.

Whether they are linked or not, it now clear we are facing two public health emergencies that need more attention. Mental health disorders and air pollution can both prematurely rob us of our lives. Depression can feel like a black cloud that bears down on you from all angles, smothering your entire being. Coincidentally or not, so can smog.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, where this article previously appeared.

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A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget is hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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