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Even Small Spikes in Air Pollution Can Threaten Children’s Mental Health, Research Suggests

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Even Small Spikes in Air Pollution Can Threaten Children’s Mental Health, Research Suggests
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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 net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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