A ground-breaking new study from Sweden has highlighted a link between poor air quality and increased levels of mental illness in children. Though scientists have uncovered a growing body of evidence which had pointed to the link in the past, this study is the first to establish it outright.
Even more concerning, the study proves that mental illnesses are more likely to develop among young ones even in areas which suffer from fairly low but prolonged levels of air pollution.
What the study says
The study, first published in the science and health journal BMJ Open, is based upon the findings of a monitoring operation which kept track of pollution levels in areas affecting over half a million young Swedes aged 18 years or younger. This data was then cross-referenced with an analysis of the amount of medicines prescribed to the youngsters, including all types of medication from anti-psychotic drugs to sedatives.
What’s remarkable is that Sweden itself enjoys a good reputation when it comes to air quality, meaning that cities and countries with higher levels of pollution are likely at a higher risk of young ones developing mental health issues.
“The results can mean that a lower concentration of air pollution, first and foremost from traffic, may reduce psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents,” explained Anna Oudin, lead researcher on the study. “I would be worried myself if I lived in an area with high air pollution. In all the air pollution studies I have been involved in, the effects seem to be linear.”
A growing body of evidence
The Swedish paper might be the first to establish clear parallels between heightened pollution levels and an increase in mental illness, but it’s only the latest in a long line of research pointing to the harmful effects of poor air quality – especially with regard to children.
A Spanish study carried out last year monitored 2,715 children for one year to test how their cognitive and memory capabilities were affected over the course of 12 months. Those who lived in areas with higher air quality displayed greater percentages of improvement in both areas, drawing a parallel between pollution and intelligence.
Meanwhile, another year-long study was launched at approximately the same time, with the children from 1,200 families across Europe – and everything they came into contact during that time – monitored to determine how their exposure to pollution affected their development and health.
Bad news for the UK
The fact that the Swedish study uncovered these results even in areas with low air pollution levels which showed concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) below 15 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg/m3) means that young ones in Britain are almost definitely more at risk.
For reference, the recommended maximum level of NO2 (as advised by both the EU and the World Health Organisation) is 40mcg/m3. In certain parts of London, those levels can be many times higher, while earlier this year the Guardian reported that 433 schools in the capital were based in areas which exceeded legal limits for NO2.
With a concrete link between mental impairment and pollution now firmly established, it’s vital that the government and big business waste no time in improving air quality and transport-related pollution. The wellbeing of future generations depends upon it.