Study Supports Link Between Traffic Pollution and Mental Health Conditions

Priscilla Lynch 

October 29, 2020

Researchers at King’s College London, Imperial College London and University of Leicester have found what they say is the first UK evidence that adults exposed to high levels of traffic-related air pollution are more likely to experience mental disorders.

In this prospective, longitudinal, population-based mental health study, published in the journal  Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology,  researchers analysed data from 1698 adults living in 1075 households in South East London, from 2008 to 2013.

Participants were assessed for common mental disorders, psychotic experiences and physical symptoms indicative of mental distress (such as stomach pain, shortness of breath and trouble sleeping) based on clinical interviews and validated questionnaires over a five-year period. This data were linked with quarterly average concentrations of air pollution (20x20 metre grid points) at the residential address of the participants, who lived in densely populated inner-city areas of high-traffic flows and high average air pollution concentrations compared with other UK urban areas.

Associations with mental health were analysed using multilevel generalised linear models, after adjusting for multiple confounders, including individuals’ socio-economic position and exposure to road-traffic noise.

The researchers found that for each 5 μg/m3 increase in very small particulate matter (PM2.5) and 3 μg/m3 increase in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), odds of common mental disorders were increased by 18-39 per cent and odds of indicative physical symptoms were increased by 19-30 per cent.

They estimated a two-fold increase in terms of common mental disorder cases directly attributable to residential exposures to PM2.5 above 15.5 μg/m3, which is below the European Union air quality target value of 25 μg/m3.

The study also assessed the relationship between exposure to air pollution (PM10) and psychotic experiences and found an associated 33 per cent increased chance of psychotic experiences.

“Whilst causation cannot be proved, this work suggests substantial morbidity from mental disorders could be avoided with improved air quality,” the researchers concluded.

Bakolis I, Hammoud R, Stewart R, Beevers S, Dajnak D, MacCrimmon S, Broadbent M, Pritchard M, Shiode N, Fecht D, Gulliver J, Hotopf M, Hatch SL, Mudway IS. Mental health consequences of urban air pollution: prospective population-based longitudinal survey. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2020 Oct 24 [Epub ahead of print]. doi: 10.1007/s00127-020-01966-x. PMID: 33097984 View full text

This article originally appeared on Univadis, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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