Even Small Spikes in Air Pollution Can Threaten Children’s Mental Health, Research Suggests
Climate change is making air pollution worse and is exacerbating smog-related health risks such as heart and lung diseases, pregnancy complications and development issues. Now, a study by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center has identified another health risk associated with rising air pollution: childhood psychiatric issues.
According to the study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, short-term spikes in ambient air pollution are linked with an increase in hospital visits for childhood psychiatric issues. Also, children in low-income neighborhoods with poor access to healthcare appeared to be more susceptible to the mental health effects of air pollution.
CNN reported that while previous research has shown an association between particulate matter pollution in the air and adult mental health issues, this is the first time researchers have looked into its effect on children.
During the five-year study, researchers focused on a very small type of particulate matter called PM 2.5 — fossil fuel-powered vehicles and power plants, cooking, dust and brush fires are all sources — can be easily inhaled and end up in organs and the bloodstream, causing inflammation in the lungs or brain, and, in the long term, may trigger cancer and heart attacks.
The researchers looked at more than 13,000 visits by children to Cincinnati Children's emergency psychiatric unit and compared it with data on the concentrations of PM 2.5 where they live. Results showed that spikes in PM 2.5 concentration were associated with increased childhood psychiatric visits one or two days later for adjustment disorder, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, while same-day visits were usually related to schizophrenia.
All daily exposures to PM 2.5 in the study were below levels set in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Ambient Air Quality Standards, researchers said.
These spikes in air pollution increased the risk of hospitalization for suicidal thoughts by 44 percent overall, the Daily Mail reported, but the risk for children from disadvantaged areas was almost double that. These children were also 39 percent more likely to need treatment for anxiety.
The researchers noted that the study was observational and more research would be needed to rule out other causes, Newsweek reported.
"More research is needed to confirm these findings, but it could lead to new prevention strategies for children experiencing symptoms related to a psychiatric disorder," lead author Cole Brokamp said in a press release. "The fact that children living in high poverty neighborhoods experienced greater health effects of air pollution could mean that pollutant and neighborhood stressors can have synergistic effects on psychiatric symptom severity and frequency."
While this study only looked at PM 2.5, it builds on other recent research by Cincinnati Children's demonstrating that exposure to air pollution in general during childhood may contribute to a host of mental health issues at an early age.
In May, researchers at the Cincinnati Children's published a study in Environmental Research showing a link between increased exposure to high traffic related air pollution (TRAP) and generalized anxiety. Another study published in June found that exposure to TRAP shortly in early childhood was linked with symptoms of anxiety and depression in 12-year-olds.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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