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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.