25-year study shows that pollution affects mental health

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by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition, and Honorary Chair, Quiet American Skies

How would air and noise pollution impact individuals who are exposed prenatally and during early childhood? What would the impact be on individuals exposed to high levels of noise during early childhood and adolescence? The research discussed in this article attempted to answer these questions by conducting a longitudinal study on a sample of nearly 10,000 pregnant women and about 9,000 of the children they gave birth to. This study was conducted over the course of 25 years in the United Kingdom.

The researchers used residential addresses to collect data on the noise and air pollution that their subjects were exposed to. The researchers also looked at ethnicity, family history of psychiatric problems, education and maternal social class. The final follow-up with the subjects, half of whom were female and around 96% who were white, took place when they were 24.5 years old.

The researchers concluded that individuals exposed during pregnancy and early childhood years to PM2.5 pollutants (microscopic, inhalable particles with diameters 2.5 micrometers and smaller) are more likely to experience psychotic episodes and depression. Noise exposure during childhood and adolescence also increased the likelihood of anxiety.  

The findings linking anxiety to noise are not unexpected in that there are numerous studies on adults that link noise to stress and sleep disruption. Similarly, air pollutants have been found to adversely affect mental health. However, this study’s findings still need to be confirmed with more precise measurements of air and noise pollution and improved experimental designs, as noted by the researchers. Furthermore, it was stressed that future studies should include a less affluent, more diverse population.

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