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Increased Air Pollution Clouds Mental Health

Air pollution has become an increasingly prominent issue in our lives. Heavy air pollution has always been connected to negatively affecting physical health. Ambient (outdoor) air pollution contains harmful gases including carbon monoxide from cars and particulate matter.

Chronic exposure to air pollution can lead to long-term effects like heart disease, lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases. The most dangerous types of air pollution are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. These toxins have the strongest evidence of causing adverse side effects.

Everyone needs to worry about how air pollution affects both their physical and mental health, but there is evidence to suggest that children, the elderly, and pregnant women are the most susceptible to experiencing symptoms caused by air pollution. The physical health issues most strongly linked to ambient air pollution exposure include stroke, ischemic heart disease, lung cancer, and pneumonia.

As ambient air pollution becomes increasingly worse, evidence has been found to suggest a connection between air pollution and negative mental health symptoms. Exposure to indoor air pollution can also lead to similar symptoms.

Mental health care is just as important as physical health care. Paying attention to your personal mental health and finding ways to improve your mental health is vital. It’s especially crucial in the winter as this season can worsen negative mental health symptoms.

Seasonal affective disorder, also known as seasonal depression, can affect someone throughout any month but people typically experience symptoms in the fall and winter. People with winter onset seasonal affective disorder might find they’re oversleeping more, have low energy, and experience appetite changes and possibly gain weight.

Winter seasonal depression symptoms can be exacerbated by the fact that air pollution is worse in the winter months than it is during any other season. Air pollution is worse in the winter because the air is denser in the colder months. The dense air sinks and traps the airborne pollution, which means pollution created in the winter stays around for longer compared to any other season.

Although there are different approaches to treating physical and mental illnesses, the two are intrinsically linked. Mental health issues can affect physical health issues and vice versa. There’s evidence to suggest that air pollution negatively affects both mental and physical health.


How Air Pollution Exposure Affects Your Mental Health

What evidence has come to light supporting the impacts of air pollution on mental health? Poor air quality has been proven to lead to more serious mental health issues. In Seattle, doctors observed increased headaches and symptoms of depression as air quality diminished in September of 2020 due to wildfire smoke.

Air pollution has been connected to non-specific psychological distress, perceived stress, depression, anxiety, psychosis, and suicide. There is also a correlation between poor air quality days and increased use of mental health services including emergency room visits and inpatient hospital care.

Health issues can occur from both short-term and long-term exposure to air pollution. There is no safe amount of air pollution exposure and even minor exposure could lead to negative symptoms.

While the physiological and environmental effects of air pollution have been well documented, we’re only now realizing there’s also a psychological effect that air pollution has on people. Air pollution increases rates of both depression and anxiety, impairs memory and decision-making, harms work productivity, and even exacerbates criminal activity.

What are common mental health concerns when dealing with air pollution? According to a recent 2021 study conducted in London, even minor increases in air pollution have been connected to rises in anxiety, depression, and a link to dementia later in life.

The London study found that air pollution can adversely affect the brain leading to an increased risk for psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and depression, but there is not enough evidence to suggest the severity or longevity following early onset symptoms connected to air pollution.

Physical and Mental health side effects to air pollution exposure

Whether the mental illness symptoms are short-term or long-term after exposure to air pollution isn’t clear, but it is clear that the worse the air quality is the higher the use of mental health services. The London study suggests that reducing ambient air pollution in residential areas could lower the use of mental health services and reduce healthcare costs.

Mental health awareness has increased and continues to increase as we realize and accept that paying attention to mental health is just as important as paying attention to physical health. Air pollution clearly harms our physical health, but in recent years we’ve found a connection between poor mental health and air pollution that can’t be ignored.


COPD And Emotional Health

The American Lung Association suggests a connection between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and symptoms of anxiety and depression. COPD is a group of diseases that causes breathing problems including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD is typically caused by inhaling smoke.

It’s typical to have a difficult time adjusting after receiving a chronic medical condition diagnosis like COPD. It’s a new adjustment and understandably COPD patients can have feelings of sadness, fear, and worry. But, it’s a different story when these feelings won't go away.

There is an increased risk of anxiety and depression that can be ignored in those diagnosed with COPD because of the nature of the chronic physical illness. It’s important to note changes in your breathing, activity, and mood because COPD symptoms tend to overlap with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

COPD leads to shortness of breath, but it’s important to note if this shortness of breath is caused by COPD or a COPD patient experiencing a panic attack, a symptom of anxiety. Those are two different approaches to helping treat the symptom of shortness of breath so it’s important to try to figure out what exactly is the root cause.

Worrying about your activity level due to shortness of breath caused by your COPD can also lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression symptoms. Exercising and staying active can have positive effects on your mental health.

It’s vital to talk with your healthcare providers about your symptoms to try to differentiate your COPD symptoms from possible mental health symptoms. This can allow you to determine the best approach to helping treat the symptoms and whether you should be focusing on physical or mental health as the root cause of symptom

Exercise, or even just moving around instead of staying completely sedentary, is also an important way to maintain positive mental health. Breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques also help to reduce stress and anxiety.

Talking about your physical and mental health with your friends, family, and others in the COPD community can also go a long way in maintaining a positive mental health environment in your life. 


Importance Of Protecting Yourself From The Effects Of Air Pollution On Your Mental Health

How do you know if air pollution is impacting your mental health? It’s important to be aware of the air quality in your area. You can check if your air quality is good or unhealthy in your area with Oransi’s MapMyAir site or the MapMyAir apps available in the App Store or in the Google Play Store.

MapMyAir screenshot showing unhealthy air quality

Air pollution could be affecting your health if the air quality in your area is poor, especially if it is considered unhealthy like in this December 2021 screenshot of the air quality in New Holland, Pennsylvania.

With MapMyAir, you can track your air quality on a daily basis and see the changes in your area’s air quality with live updates. The site and app allow you to see the exact levels of toxins in your air including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter levels.

You can also track the pollen count in your area, which can also exacerbate negative symptoms if your allergies are triggered by tree, grass, or weed allergens.

If you are experiencing new, unexplained symptoms and cannot pinpoint the cause of these new symptoms, then it’s worth looking into your air quality. Poor air quality could possibly be the root cause of sudden onset mental health issues or physical symptoms.

It’s difficult to have feelings of tiredness, decreased energy, hopelessness, trouble focusing, a decrease in productivity, or other symptoms of depression and anxiety. While having less exposure to air pollution won’t help every case of mental illness, it’s worth protecting yourself from air pollution as the connection between mental health and air pollution becomes more evident. 


Air Pollution In 2021

There have been several events proving the sudden onset adverse side effects of concentrated air pollution in 2021 alone. Two of the most notable recent air pollution events in 2021 are the Dominguez Channel toxic gases and the Bristol, Virginia landfill.

The Dominguez Channel is located in the Los Angeles county area and their community has been struggling since October 2021 due to experiencing adverse effects from air pollution exposure.

Allegedly, a warehouse fire introduced ethanol and higher levels of hydrogen sulfide into the city of Carson, California. Hydrogen sulfide is a toxic gas that smells overwhelmingly like sewage and rotten eggs even at low volumes.

The odor and toxicity of the hydrogen sulfide permeated the ambient air in the area and caused adverse effects like headaches and nausea. The city offered a reimbursement program for air purifiers to help clean indoor air and reduce the odor causing the negative health side effects.

The Bristol, Virginia landfill has also been causing similar adverse effects to the people in the neighboring community of Bristol, Tennessee. They have established an air purifier reimbursement program run by United Way. The city has also provided information on the situation and mental health services for those who are affected by the daily disruption of environmental contamination and the stress it can cause


How To Protect Yourself From The Effects Of Air Pollution

How can you protect yourself from air pollution? The short answer is it’s difficult to fully protect yourself from ambient air pollution as you personally don’t have much control over the pollution in your area.

Air pollution continues to be a major health concern for those in the United States and around the world. True change in reducing our air pollution needs to be a unified effort, but there are ways you can try to personally protect yourself from air pollution.

Quick Tips graphic

Tips on how to protect yourself from the effects of air pollution

  • Understanding the effects of air pollution: it’s important to understand the basic possible mental and physical effects of air pollution, referenced throughout this article, in order to recognize the symptoms and try to protect yourself from air pollution through trial and error 
  • Don’t burn fires indoors: avoid burning fires and scented candles indoors as this increases the level pollution from volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) indoors 
  • Try to avoid driving: surprisingly there’s more pollution exposure in a car than outside a car, if you’re experiencing unhealthy air quality in your area try to avoid driving if possible
  • Avoid outdoor exercise when your area’s air quality is poor: it’s better to exercise indoors or at the very least limit your exposure when exercising in poor air quality
  • Wear a medical N95 mask outside: although not fully proven, it certainly doesn’t hurt to wear an N95 mask if the air quality in your area is extremely unhealthy, this also helps to protect you against allergens in your area 
  • Close your windows if your area’s air quality is poor: if the ambient outdoor air quality is poor in your area, for example if you live in an area with wildfire smoke, it’s important to keep your windows closed 
  • Open your windows if your area’s air quality is healthy: although it’s important to keep your windows closed when ambient air quality is poor, it’s helpful to have the windows open to healthy air to help indoor air quality 
  • Track the air quality in your area with MapMyAir: this allows you to track exactly what’s in your air and help plan outdoor activities 
  • Purchase an air purifier from Oransi: this helps to clean your indoor air and keep your indoor air quality at a healthy level at all times and especially if you’re experiencing ambient air pollution that permeates your indoor air quality like in the Dominguez Channel and Bristol, Tennessee events 

How can the effects of air pollution on mental health be mitigated? Following the tips above can help you mitigate any negative effects of both indoor and outdoor air pollution on mental health. Hopefully, these changes help both your mental and physical health as you begin to protect yourself from air pollution.

The crucial take away on the connection of air pollution and mental health is to simply understand that there is a connection. It’s important to understand both the effects of air pollution and the symptoms of various mental illnesses.

It’s important to understand the symptoms of mental illness, specifically anxiety and depression in this context, and reach out to a healthcare professional for help if these symptoms are long-term.

The growing evidence suggests ambient air pollution could be a trigger for negative mental health issues. Working towards protecting yourself from air pollution along with working with your mental health professional, trying other stress reducing techniques like exercising, and attempting breathing exercises to reduce stress and anxiety will likely help to establish and keep your mental health environment positive.