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Study Links Air Pollution and Teenage Psychotic Experiences

Health + Wellness
Euston Road has one of London's highest nitrogen dioxide air pollution levels. oatsy40 / CC BY 2.0

Air pollution has long been known to have a potentially deadly impact on the heart and lungs, but increasing evidence is showing it might be bad for the brain as well. Studies have linked it to dementia, and now, researchers at King's College London have found the first evidence of an association between exposure to polluted air and experiences of psychosis in teens.


The study, published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, looked at more than 2,000 17-year-olds born in England and Wales and found that those who lived in polluted areas were 27 to 72 percent more likely than those who did not to have psychotic experiences like hearing voices or feeling intensely paranoid, The New York Times reported.

Nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the pollutants released by diesel vehicles, were the most associated with psychotic symptoms. In the areas most polluted with nitrogen oxides, 12 teens reported experiencing symptoms for every 20 who did not; in less polluted areas, seven teens reported symptoms compared to 20 who did not, The Guardian reported.

"There seems to be some link between exposure to air pollution and effects in the brain and this [new research] is perhaps another example of this," study author and King's College London professor Frank Kelly told The Guardian. "Children and young people are most vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution owing to the juvenility of the brain and respiratory system."

The researchers took into account other factors such as smoking, alcohol and marijuana use, psychiatric history and income level and found that exposure to nitrogen oxides explained 60 percent of the association between living in polluted areas and psychosis symptoms. However, the researchers noted that this was a preliminary, observational study and could not prove that pollution caused the symptoms.

"From this one study, we can't say that air pollution causes psychosis," lead author and King's College London research psychologist Helen L. Fisher told The New York Times. "The study only says that these things commonly occur together."

Another factor that could explain the association is the noise from polluting vehicles, since it can interrupt sleep and increase stress, according to New Scientist.

If the air pollution is the culprit, it could be because the pollutants are directly influencing the brain. Pollution exposure has been linked with inflammation in the brain, which has in turn been linked to psychosis.

The researchers also found a smaller link between particulate matter exposure and psychotic symptoms; those exposed were about 45 percent more likely to experience symptoms. Overall, the researchers and other public health advocates called for further research.

"The study makes a valuable contribution to the growing body of evidence that air pollution may affect more than just cardiovascular and respiratory health," Head of Atmospheric Chemistry and Effects at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology Stefan Reis told The Guardian. "This new study makes a compelling case to investigate a range of mental health outcomes of air pollution exposure."


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That's the conclusion of a new study from think tank Autonomy, which found that Germany, the UK and Sweden all needed to drastically reduce their workweeks to fight climate change.

"The rapid pace of labour-saving technology brings into focus the possibility of a shorter working week for all, if deployed properly," Autonomy Director Will Stronge said, The Guardian reported. "However, while automation shows that less work is technically possible, the urgent pressures on the environment and on our available carbon budget show that reducing the working week is in fact necessary."

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The report comes as the group Momentum called on the UK's Labour Party to endorse a four-day work week.

"We welcome this attempt by Autonomy to grapple with the very real changes society will need to make in order to live within the limits of the planet," Emma Williams of the Four Day Week campaign said in a statement reported by The Independent. "In addition to improved well-being, enhanced gender equality and increased productivity, addressing climate change is another compelling reason we should all be working less."

Supporters of the idea linked it to calls in the U.S. and Europe for a Green New Deal that would decarbonize the economy while promoting equality and well-being.

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Stronge also linked his report to calls for a Green New Deal.

"Becoming a green, sustainable society will require a number of strategies – a shorter working week being just one of them," he said, according to The Guardian. "This paper and the other nascent research in the field should give us plenty of food for thought when we consider how urgent a Green New Deal is and what it should look like."

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