How Air Pollution Impacts Childhood Mental Health

Air pollution is a known risk factor for certain mental health problems in adults, but a new study also links high rates of air pollution to poorer psychiatric health in children and adolescents.

To investigate this link, researchers from Umeå University in Sweden examined what is known as “register-based” data. All medications given to Swedish people are registered, and in this case, researchers zeroed in on individuals under age 18 from Stockholm, Västra Götaland, Skåne and Västerbotten. They then looked at this information in connection with the Swedish National Register, which logs air pollution.

Due to the socioeconomic range in these regions, researchers first had to control for factors that might affect the outcome, including variety in wealth and ethnicity.

Researchers found that air pollution levels do seem to impact adolescent and childhood psychiatric diagnoses, but they couldn’t directly measure rates of mental illness.

Furthermore, the risk of having at least one psychiatric diagnosis increased with just a 10 microgram per cubic meter increase in nitrogen dioxide levels in the air.

Nitrogen dioxide is one of several air pollutants that results from road traffic and other fossil fuel use. The gas is of particular interest for both health and environment agencies because it plays a part in the formation of particulate matter and acid rain. Long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide has been linked to reduced lung function and resulting breathing and respiratory problems. It has also been identified as a potential risk factor for increasing allergy rates.

The actual increase in risk identified in the study, which was published this month in the “British Medical Journal,” was relatively modest at nine percent. On its own, this figure, perhaps, would not have been overly convincing. However, the link was apparent at even relatively low levels of pollution — and may become more pronounced if future studies examine individuals exposed to higher concentrations.

“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,” says researcher Anna Oudin of the Unit for Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine.

Other studies have pointed to this link before. One study focused on six and seven year-olds in New York found a significant increase in attention problems and mental health issues like depression and anxiety in children who were exposed to certain chemicals in the air that were the result of burning fossil fuels.

Previously, research has linked increased rates of conditions like anxiety in adults to greater levels of air pollution. The link doesn’t just stop there though. Fine particular matter in air pollution has been linked to reduced cognitive function too, for example one study found that older women who were exposed to high levels of pollutants tended to exhibit greater cognitive decline than other women who were roughly the same age.

Other studies have also found an increased likelihood of autism diagnoses in children if the mother lived in an area with higher concentrations of particulate matter.

Despite this, and as the American Psychological Association notes, the mental health link is not often brought up in coverage of pollution-related stories and legislative and policy response. That’s worrying because while the physical effects of pollution are apparent, the mental health and cognitive impact may be overlooked.

This study illuminates just one more argument for careful environmental safeguards — for instance, the Obama administration’s limits on emissions – in order to protect our own health and, crucially, the health of future generations.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

All the screaming about "the children" and corporations get the care.

Fi T.
Past Member 2 years ago

Nobody can be exempted from the impacts

Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn2 years ago

Many thanks to you !

Emma L.
Past Member 2 years ago

Thank you!

Barbara S.
Barbara S.2 years ago

Some of us figured this out several years ago when we were stuck in freeway traffic for mies and hours, going to and from work! We would get to work in a "fog" and have trouble getting our work days begun. WE - the ones who'd just spent more than an hour in work-hour-rush, going-nowhere-fast - crawling along between 5 and 8 mph were experiencing frustration, impatience and sometimes anger before we ever got to our offices! Then, being in filtered A/C allowed the fog to lift with 20-30 minutes of being in a controlled environment. But often we had to go from stop to run as soon as our phones began ringing, and when the first 2 callers of the day were hysterical or angry, they were much more difficult to deal with, until our oxygen level was normal. We used to sit in the break-room and discuss it. So, altho it's nice to see some studies are finally proving what we'd already surmised, I fear it may have already done irreparable damage in some cases, and to the babies of those who went through pregnancies under the stresses of pollution. Personally I've always thought autism has been a direct result of pollution. But that's yet proved. Perhaps one day there will be class-action-suits to help those babies who struggle with varying degrees of autism and breathing problems.

John chapman
John chapman2 years ago

All true, but what about the water in Flint.

Lisa M.
Lisa M2 years ago

Thanks for sharing. Scientists have known certain impacts of air pollution for decades (if not much, much longer) and lay people should have enough common sense to know that poison (pollution) is BAD STUFF.

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

Putting poisons in our bodies causes health issues...How hard is that to figure out?