Urban living not just causes manifestations of physical ailments with respiratory diseases and other issues amongst children, but a chilling new finding from research states that children who live in places with high air pollution when they are young have a significantly higher likelihood of suffering from depression by the time they turn 18. While the link between pollution and physical health has been well studied and documented, we are only just waking up to the fact that pollution can also have a detrimental impact on mental health.

A recent study released in May has found that long term exposure to air pollution caused by traffic can alter the brain chemicals in children, and eventually lead to mental disorders like anxiety and depression. According to researchers from the University of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre, USA, who studied the correlation between exposure to traffic-related air pollution and childhood anxiety, by checking pre-adolescents for altered neurochemistry, there definitely was a connection. According to the reports, the researchers checked the imaging of 145 children of an average age of 12 to check the levels of Myo-inositol in the brain through a specialized MRI technique. This is a chemical that is found in glial cells in the brain, which maintain cell volume and fluid balance and serves as a regulator for hormones and insulin.

While the link between pollution and physical health has been well studied and documented, we are only just waking up to the fact that pollution can also have a detrimental impact on mental health.

To quote the lead author of the study Kelly Brunst, Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati, “Recent evidence suggests the central nervous system is particularly vulnerable to air pollution, suggesting a role in etiology of mental disorders, like anxiety or depression. This is the first study to use neuroimaging to evaluate exposure to traffic-related air pollution, metabolite dysregulation in brain and generalized anxiety symptoms among otherwise healthy children.” This study was published in the journal Environmental Research. To quote Brunst, “In the higher, recent exposure group, we saw a 12 percent increase in anxiety symptoms.” Brunst added though that the observed increase in reported generalized anxiety symptoms in this cohort was relatively small and therefore possibly would not result in the clinical diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.

Another study looking at mental health amongst teens found that young children exposed to unhealthy, highly polluted air were at a three to four time higher risk to go into depression by 18. In fact, this study ranked air pollution as a higher risk factor than physical abuse in the likelihood of suffering from depression by 18. According to the research, 75% of mental health problems start during childhood or adolescence, when the brain is still developing. The research also stated that there might be a link between toxic air pollution and antisocial behavior.

A study looking at mental health amongst teens found that young children exposed to unhealthy, highly polluted air were at a three to four time higher risk to go into depression by 18.

To quote Helen Fisher, who led this research from Kings College, UK, “High levels of air pollution are just not good for you, and particularly for your children, whether that be physical or mental health. It is sensible to try to avoid the areas with the highest levels of air pollution.”

This study, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, took information sourced from children living in London along with data on the air pollution levels and combined the two to arrive at their conclusions.

The study looked at 284 children living in the 25 % most polluted areas at the time they were twelve. By the time they were 18, these kids had a three to four times more likelihood of suffering from depression. As a comparative, kids who underwent physical abuse at a young age were one and a half times more likely to suffer from the same. Other factors that could affect the study, like family history, income level, substance abuse, etc, were factored in. The study found that the risk of antisocial behavior was almost five times higher for kids brought up in high pollution areas.

To quote Fisher, “We know the pollutant particles are small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier and we know there are big links between inflammation in the brain and the development of depressive symptoms.”

Mumbai based clinical psychologist Dr. Seema Hingorany says, “High pollution areas cause many psychological disorders in children, commonly what we see is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, depression and high levels of anxiety. This can be correlated to the increase in high levels of stress hormones called Cortisol. I have witnessed young children having major anger issues and inability to deal with stress. The more the pollution the more young children are prone to sadness as the secretion of feel-good hormones reduces. We mostly check the environmental factors on our depression scale, and the results are that less polluted areas, children and teens report joy and feeling of comfort.”

Research bears this out. In Sweden, a research found an association between the levels of air pollution in the neighborhood and the prescribed medicine dispensed for psychiatric disorders amongst Swedish children and adolescents.

Another study found that 33 percent of children who had grown up in neighborhoods that reported high pollution for periods longer than a year reported one psychotic episode from the age of 12 to 18. These generally included feelings that people were spying on them or hearing voices. The researchers found that those who were living in areas reporting the highest level of pollutants generally reported a higher percentage of psychotic episodes.

The more the pollution the more young children are prone to sadness as the secretion of feel-good hormones reduces. We mostly check the environmental factors on our depression scale, and the results are that less polluted areas, children and teens report joy and feeling of comfort. – Dr. Seema Hingorany

Dr. Hingorrany feels parents must be ultra vigilant about any signs of depression amongst teens and pre-teens. She states, “Parents need to monitor few signs like low confidence, persistent negative thoughts, high irritability, mood swings, binge eating or binge shopping, negative self-talk or talks about harming oneself. Parents need to get depression screened immediately.”

Parents would do well to pay heed to her advice. Given the amount of external stress already on children these days, what with the pressure to perform academically, and peer pressure, that merely living in an urban situation can predispose them to depression and anxiety is a grim reality that all adults in a caretaker position must be aware of, and be alert to. After all, pollution seems here to stay. And our children are paying the price.

Also Read: How Toxic Air Could Put Children’s Brain Development At Risk

Kiran Manral is the Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV

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