If you thought air pollution was limited to impacting your health, giving you respiratory disorders, affecting your children’s health and causing skin diseases, you couldn’t be more mistaken. New research has found that while health problems triggered and caused by air pollution could be a long term manifestation, more immediate correlations could be something we had not even considered previously, that of violent behavior.

While you could be breathing upwards of 20 plus cigarettes a day in some of our cities in India, the damage they cause your lungs, as well as the rest of the body, is a correlation well known. What is lesser known is the new research that says aggressive behavior could be directly correlated with polluted air. A new paper from the Colorado State University and the University of Minnesota uses FBI crime date and air pollution data from the Environmental Protection Agency to analyze spikes in air pollution and the rise in the rate of violent crimes in 397 US counties between 2006 and 2013.

While you could be breathing upwards of 20 plus cigarettes a day in some of our cities in India, the damage they cause your lungs, as well as the rest of the body, is a correlation well known.

Lead Researcher Jesse Burkhardt and his colleagues found a definite correlation between the two. According to their report, they found that a mere ten percent increase in the same-day exposure to PM 2.5 correlated with a 0.14 percent rise in the number of reported violent crimes. A rise in exposure to ozone also is said to lead to a 0.3 percent rise in violent crime. The researchers, however, are careful to not label pollution as the direct cause but ask us to note the correlation.

Pollution and a rise in crime has been researched earlier. Back in the 1970s, the correlation between lead-based paint and leaded petrol was banned and phased out. And researchers found that the rates of crime fell two decades later, leading them to posit that perhaps there was a link between the two developments. A paper published by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist from Amherst College, back in 2007 theorized that children from the 1970s and 1980s had reduced exposure to lead and that could explain why the 1990s saw a decline in crime rates.

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According to the authors of the research from the Colorado State University and the University of Minnesota, a mere 10 percent reduction in the daily PM 2.5 and ozone exposure could substantially reduce health care costs and economic loss caused by violent assaults.

To quote co-author Jude Bayham from a statement, “We’re talking about crimes that might not even be physical—you can assault someone verbally. The story is, when you’re exposed to more pollution, you become marginally more aggressive, so those altercations—some things that may not have escalated—do escalate.”

According to this research, the results were the same across communities, age, and socioeconomic status.

Practitioners in the space of mental health are divided on the results of this study though. According to Kumaar Bagrodia, Founder & CEO, NeuroLeap, “There is growing evidence that pollution (in particular air pollution) affects blood vessels throughout the body and the vascular structure in the brain thereby altering the neuronal activity. MRI scans have shown lesions in the brains of children raised in high pollution environments and lower IQ. Toxicity is affecting sleep, appetite and more. Air pollution has proven to put people in bad moods from stock traders in Germany and New York to ordinary citizens in China and Mexico. The effects of cognitive decline, faster neurodegeneration are showing up in mood disorders and aggression, leading to an increase in violent crimes.”

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Snigdha Mishra, Founder Life Surfers, Psychotherapist, Mental Wellness & Behaviour Trainer-Coach concurs. She says, “Exposure to poor quality air can increase the stress hormone cortisol, which can influence risk perception. Higher levels of risk-taking is one reason why there is a rise in criminal activity on polluted days. The researchers conclude that reducing air pollution could reduce crime. There’s plenty of evidence to prove that poor air quality is bad for both our physical and mental health. There’s still a lot we don’t know about how individual air pollutants can affect health and behavior, and how this differs with gender, age, class, income, and geographic location.” A correlation between oxygen depletion in the air and behavioral change is remarked upon by Clinical Psychologist and Family Therapist Ramneek Kapoor of Alka Mansik Pramarsh Foundation and Family Therapy India, “Yes, air pollution does impact behavior. The oxygen levels in polluted air go down leading to a feeling of hypoxia and brain neurons become dysfunctional leading to change in behavior.”

Exposure to poor quality air can increase the stress hormone cortisol, which can influence risk perception. Higher levels of risk-taking is one reason why there is a rise in criminal activity on polluted days. – Snigdha Mishra

This research though cannot be determined as conclusive, and a lot more needs to be done before definite conclusions are drawn say some. As Taraa Verma Sengupta, Executive coach and Behavioural Specialist, states, “This study seems rather sweeping, as also stated in the article. The only example provided is of smoke from wildfires which are usually uncontrolled and can cause major damage to vegetation, livestock, property as well as human lives. Our most fundamental instinct is that of survival – physical and then economic. A threat to that is enough to cause behavioral changes. We call these SEE – Significant Emotional Event/s. SEE’s could range from a mugging, accident, death of a loved one to wildfire and beyond. There is no formula for the effect a SEE can have. One person could get aggressive and the next one could become a recluse.”

Nonetheless, it is definitely good to be aware of the possible effects of high pollution on us physically, mentally and emotionally, and do our mite to control what is in our power to minimise exposure to and contribution towards. The power of many citizens working together to reduce emissions will definitely have some impact on overall levels of pollution and that can only have a positive impact on the health and mental wellbeing of the population.

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