It’s pretty common knowledge that air pollution is bad for your lungs, but a first-of-its-kind study published in JAMA Psychiatry has now found a link between air pollution and psychotic experiences in teens, The Guardian reports. People living in cities are twice as likely to have psychotic experiences, the researchers said in the study, but there are a lot of factors in cities that could cause these experiences, such as noise, crime, and, of course, air pollution. Since more and more people are living in cities every year, the researchers said in the study that they wanted to figure out what might be causing urban psychosis so preventive treatments can then be developed.
Researchers from the King’s College in London analyzed the experiences of more than 2,000 17-year-olds from England and Wales and found that those who lived in areas with higher levels of nitrogen oxide had a 70 percent higher chance of experiencing symptoms of psychosis, such as “hearing voices or intense paranoia,” The Guardian reports. The researchers did look at other factors that could potentially cause psychosis, The Guardian says, including tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis use, family income, psychiatric history, and levels of neighborhood deprivation, which is a lack of socioeconomic resources.
“[Nitrogen oxides] explained about 60 percent of the association between urban living and psychotic experiences,” Joanne Newbury at King’s College London, who led the research, told The Guardian. Other factors that might contribute to psychotic experiences, says The Guardian, might include “genetic susceptibility and experience of crime.”
Although this is the first study to connect air pollution to psychosis, it’s not the first to connect air pollution to mental health. A 2018 study published in PLoS One found a link between air pollution and a wide range of mental health disorders. And University of Washington researchers published a 2017 study in the journal Health & Place that found a link between increased air pollution and psychological distress. Both studies controlled for other risk factors, such as other health conditions, socioeconomic status, or family histories.
Nitrogen oxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, and it comes from a ton of different sources, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NIH). “Nitrogen oxides are emitted from vehicle exhaust, and the burning of coal, oil, diesel fuel, and natural gas, especially from electric power plants,” says the NIH. “They are also emitted by cigarettes, gas stoves, kerosene heaters, wood burning, and silos that contain silage.” And those nitrogen oxides react with sunlight and other chemicals to form the smog you see in cities and then breathe into your lungs.
The American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2018 report found that many cities across the United States experienced more days when smog reach unhealthy levels from 2014 to 2016. And the number of people exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution also increased to more than 133.9 million, up from 125 million in the 2017 report. The American Lung Association says that’s why it’s so important to stop the effects of climate change.
“Climate change makes it harder to protect human health,” says the American Lung Association. “As climate change continues, cleaning up these pollutants will become ever more challenging.”
This new research is just further proof of just how interconnected our world really is — how climate change increases air pollution, which can impact mental health. It just goes to show that sometimes global events truly can affect people on an individual level.