Air Pollution Could be Affecting Your Brain Health

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

A new body of research is taking a closer look at how breathing dirty air can potentially impact mental health, with preliminary findings linking elevated air pollution with higher psychological distress.

A study published in the November issue of Health and Place looks at the potential effects of particulate matter (PM), which is made up of small, hazardous particles emitted from vehicles and industry smokestacks, on mental well-being. Breathing high levels of particulate matter is known to impact the lungs and heart negatively, but researchers from the University of Washington, the University of California at Davis, and Boston College wanted to see if they could understand how it might impact brain health.

According to the study, where high particulate matter pollution existed, participants experienced rates of psychological distress 17 percent higher than where there were low levels. The researchers used a survey of more than 6,000 respondents, called the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, to reach their conclusions.


The authors determined levels of “psychological distress” by measuring participants’ feelings of sadness, nervousness, restlessness, hopelessness, and worth. Then, they compared that to EPA air pollution data from participants’ neighborhoods. The study did take into account other factors that impact mental health like chronic health conditions, unemployment, and excessive drinking.

Black men and white women appeared to exhibit the greatest psychological response, according to the study: Black men saw a 34 percent higher distress level than white men and 55 percent higher than Latino men. White women, on the other hand, saw their distress levels increase by 39 percent as pollution worsened. White women were the only group that showed a significant relationship between particulate matter and psychological distress in the study’s final model that looked at sociodemographic data.

Robin Saha, an environmental justice researcher from the University of Montana who’s looked at hazardous waste pollution in communities of color, told Earther that the findings give “us another reason why it’s important to reduce air pollution.”

Saha is curious about its racial findings. Air pollution is apparently impacting white women on a serious level. “Why wouldn’t that be the case for black women?” he asked. And when it comes to black men, what else is contributing? “Being black and male is a lot more stressful for other reasons unrelated to pollution,” Saha said. Because, y’know, systemic racism and police brutality—among other things.


“We know that air pollution is very strongly associated with race and poverty,” he said. “So decreasing air pollution is going to benefit the most-vulnerable populations overall.”

Previous studies have also looked at how the brain responds to air pollution, specifically particulate matter. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas, a colleague of Saha’s at the University of Montana, for example, has researched brain development in children who breathe particulate matter. She’s found that lesions can form in the brain tissue connecting different regions of the organ. This can lead to memory loss and, Calderón-Garcidueñas speculates, even Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease down the line.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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This is weird. I said to my psychiatrist just last week that I was worried about my depression being spurred on by air toxics including volatile organics and particulates. She ask me how does that make me feel. I said there are some days I feel like a wigwam. Interesting, she said. And some days it makes me feel like a teepee. Then she goes on to tell me it may not be breathing in toxics and particulates, but that I’m just two tents.

It’s not like that really old joke mashed up with air quality concerns is any worse than current events today. I probably shouldn’t deflect so much during times of craziness. Then again, maybe the best policy for fighting air pollution is with more air pollution. According to Scott Pruitt? Tammy Fay Baker? Jesus?