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Continuous exposure to pollution can cause mental illness in children: Study
Children exposed to nitrogen oxides and particulate matter develop mental disorders such as anxiety
A recent study has revealed that higher rates of mental illness are witnessed in children and young individuals, growing up amid heavy traffic-related air pollution. The symptoms generally come to light, by the time these individuals reach the age of 18.
Childhood exposure to nitrogen oxides and particulate matter and the development of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression are linked.
These are the findings of a 25-year-long joint British/American study. The study was conducted on 2,039 children from England and Wales, all twins, born in 1994 and 1995. An assessment of their mental health was done at 18.
The authors of this study conclude that "the results collectively suggest that youths persistently exposed to moderate levels of nitrogen oxide air pollution may experience greater overall liability to psychiatric illness by young adulthood."
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According to them, the connection between air pollution and the risk of mental illness is "modest" but real. "Individual, family and neighbourhood influences on mental health", such as poverty and/or a family history of mental disorder don't seem to affect this association.
"This study has demonstrated that children growing up in our biggest cities face a greater risk of mental illness due to higher levels of traffic," said, the study’s co-author, Dr Helen Fisher. "While we might like to think of our towns and cities as green and open spaces, it's clear that there is a hidden danger that many will not have even considered."
The mental health evaluation of participants at the age of 18 was done via an assessment of symptoms for ten of the most common psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, ADHD, and alcohol dependence. This was then used to calculate something known as the psychopathology factor or p-factor, which is a measure of their mental health. Participants with a higher p-factor score displayed more symptoms.
Participants with the highest exposure to nitrogen oxides scored 2.62 points higher p-factor score than their peers in the bottom three quartiles. While those with the most particulate matter exposure scored 2.04 points more.
"We know from research that our mental health is determined by the lives we lead, the environments we’re in and our experiences from our early years onwards. A child’s mental health is influenced by many factors, including their home, school, community and neighbourhood," said, Andy Bell, deputy chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health think tank.
"We know that poverty, racism, trauma and exclusion are major risks to mental health. Today’s research shows, our physical environment matters too, and making places safer, cleaner and healthier to live in will have lifelong benefits," he added.
According to World Health Organization data, worldwide nine out of ten people are exposed to high pollution levels. Various studies identify pollution as one of the major contributing, aggravating factors for poor heart and lung health and ailments of the central nervous system and risk of mental illness.
While the study does show an interrelation between pollution, traffic fumes and mental ill-health, according to Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, "what they can’t do is to show that it’s the high air pollution that actually causes the poorer mental health."