Published September 2019 | Environmental Health Perspectives

What do air pollution and mental health have in common? For children, short-term increases in air pollution could lead to exacerbations of anxiety, suicidality, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.

While previous evidence has linked exposure to particulate matter with psychiatric exacerbations in adults, researchers in the Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology are the first to study this association in children.

The team focused on PM2.5 particles, which measure less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, can enter the brain or bloodstream through the lungs, and have been shown to cause inflammation throughout the body with short-term exposure.

First, the team analyzed emergency department visits at Cincinnati Children’s for psychiatric issues from 2011-2015. Next, they paired the data with estimated PM2.5 exposure at residential addresses.

Researchers found that psychiatric visits would spike one to two days after a rise in exposure to PM2.5. Children living in disadvantaged neighborhoods were more susceptible to these effects when compared to other children, especially for disorders related to anxiety and suicidality.

“More research is needed to confirm these findings, but it could lead to new prevention strategies for children experiencing symptoms related to a psychiatric disorder,” says lead author Cole Brokamp, PhD. “The fact that children living in high-poverty neighborhoods experienced greater health effects of air pollution could mean that pollutants and neighborhood stressors can have synergistic effects on psychiatric symptom severity and frequency.”

To better understand the biological mechanisms behind these associations, researchers plan to replicate the study in a nationwide population and focus on children with severe anxiety.

Air Pollution and Mental Health