Air Pollution May Affect Children’s Mental Health

Study finds increased psychiatric disorders among kids living in areas with higher vehicle emissions

Add one more to the long list of harms caused by air pollution — mental health problems in children.

A new study by researchers from Umeå University in Sweden warns that prolonged exposure to polluted air, especially air containing particulates from vehicle emissions, may affect brain and cognitive development in children and adolescents.

young boys playing on the streetPhoto by Jaume Escofet Researchers found that the risk of psychiatric disorders increased in areas where the ambient air had even a slightly higher concentration of nitrogen dioxide.

The study, based on a survey of medical prescriptions given to more than half a million Swedish children, found that the risk of psychiatric disorders increased in areas where the ambient air contained even a slightly higher concentration of nitrogen dioxide — a harmful gaseous compound emitted by vehicles.

“There may be a link between exposure to air pollution and dispensed medications for certain psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents even at the relatively low levels of air pollution in the study regions,” the researchers noted.

For their study, the researchers collated data on prescriptions for a broad range of psychiatric disorders — including sedative medications, sleeping pills, and antipsychotic medications — given to children and adolescents below the age of 18 in Sweden’s four major counties, Stockholm, Västra Götaland, Skåne and Västerbotten over a period of three and a half years, from 2007 to 2010.

They then compared this data to concentrations of particulate matter and nitrous dioxide found in each neighborhood and found that air pollution increased the risk of children and adolescents being given medication for at least one psychiatric disorder.

They found that the risk of children suffering from such disorders increased by 9 percent with every 10 microgram per cubic meter rise in the concentration of nitrogen dioxide in the ambient air. And the risk remained the same even when socio-economic and demographic factors were taken into account.

“The results can mean that a decreased concentration of air pollution, first and foremost traffic-related air pollution, may reduce psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents,” lead researcher Anna Oudin, from Umeå University’s Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine, said in a statement.

Air pollution, which the World Health Organization lists as one of the most serious health threats of our time, has previously been linked to neurological disorders and mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, in adults. It has also been linked to decreased cognitive function and elevated risk of autism spectrum disorders in children.

The researchers say their findings are consistent these prior studies, but that their study is the first that looks into the association between long-term exposure to air pollution and mental health in children.

Most of the existing evidence linking air pollution and mental health comes from short-term studies in adults. “Furthermore,” the researchers note, “this is the first study to use a whole population, and to use nationwide register-based data on dispensed medications as an indicator for mental health.”

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