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Does Air Quality Affect Mental Health?


Maintaining good mental health is a constant challenge. This is especially true if one is dealing with the emotional stress of work or life events along with the physical stress responses caused by air pollution and other environmental factors, such as polluted water or chemicals in plastics.


Feeling good in our homes or offices is not just a matter of having a beautiful space, no matter how magnificent your interiors and furnishings are, a poorly designed indoor environment can make you sick mentally and physically.


While there are many things that contribute to mental illness, one of them “out of sight, out of mind” is air quality. Several studies have been conducted to see how air pollution affects the brain. Many of these have linked air pollution to mental health issues such as depression, autism, and schizophrenia.


The counties with the worst air quality had a 27 percent increase in bipolar disorder and a 6 percent increase in major depression when compared to those with the best air quality.


For decades, research on the health effects of air pollution has focused on the part of the body where its effects are most obvious — the lung. In 2011, the Neuroscience Department at Ohio State University ran a study in mice. This study found that long-term exposure to air pollution can lead to physical changes in the brain. These changes can cause problems with learning and memory, and even depression.


Researchers at the University of Chicago in the US suggest a significant link between exposure to pollution and an increase in the prevalence of neuropsychiatric disorders.


The researchers suggest that exposure to PM2.5 worsens existing inflammation in the brain caused by everyday stressors that result in mental health symptoms. Specifically, brain cells called microglia, which react to life changes, social isolation, get inflamed when exposed to PM2.5 over a period of time worsening mental health.


Researchers have laid out some conclusions about what may happen in your brain when you breathe in airborne pollutants that can affect your mental health:

  • Pollutants get into the lungs and cause inflammation in your windpipe and lungs. This can also inflame your nervous system.

  • Nervous system inflammation increases the number of inflammatory cytokines in your body and activates microglia that react to stress. This kind of body-wide inflammation can cause damage to your DNA.

  • Pollutants also get into your brain through thin nose membranes, where neurons can transport PM2.5 through your olfactory (smell) system into brain tissue.

  • Pollutants that get into the brain damage the brain itself as well as brain structures in the limbic system – which is directly responsible for your emotions.

  • Over time, repeated exposure to PM2.5 can cause more and more damage to your limbic system, potentially making mental health symptoms more severe.


Office buildings should provide a clean and comfortable working environment with good indoor air quality to create favorable conditions for the psychological and physical functioning of its employees. Most people are not satisfied with the quality of air in an enclosed office space, which is one of the factors that affect people’s work, productivity, and stress levels.


Indoor air pollution not only reduces a person's ability to respond to the demands of the environment and leads to fatigue, malaise, anxiety, headaches, mental confusion, reduced mental and physical performance, as well as irritation of the eyes and throat, coughing, and wheezing. The outcomes of exposure to air pollution are largely mediated by the intervening perceptive and cognitive processes that shape behavioral and health responses to stressors.


Longer exposure to pollutants can lead to behavioral and mood changes, personality changes, impaired memory, slower motor responses, and other functional deviations. Poor indoor air quality can cause diseases such as "sick building syndrome" mass psychogenic illness.


Air pollution might not be the most obvious concern regarding our mental health. However, there is no question that the quality of the air we breathe influences our brains. If we can keep air pollution in check, our communities will be healthier and happier.

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