Air pollution may play a role in depression

Depression is both common and serious, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). This medical illness strikes approximately 16 million Americans every year. The APA believes there are a number of factors contributing to the development of depression, including biochemistry, genetics, personality, and environmental factors such as exposure to violence, neglect, abuse or poverty.

The symptoms of depression include, but are not limited to:

  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Loss of interest in life
  • Loss of appetite
  • Changes in appetite
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

When these feelings last more than two weeks, a diagnosis of depression may be warranted. Fortunately, depression is considered to be among the most treatable of mental disorders. Medication and psychotherapy are among the most common approaches.

Research on air quality and depression

Air pollution also appears to play a role in depression, though scientists are still trying to clarify the link.

In one leading study, researchers at the Ohio State University exposed mice to either polluted air or filtered air for six hours a day, five days a week for 10 months. The polluted air included a concentration of PM2.5 particulate pollutants at a concentration level that was similar to what humans are exposed to in urban areas.

In one of the experiments, mice exposed to the polluted air showed more depression-like behaviors than the group breathing filtered air. When they examined the brains of the mice exposed to polluted air, they found that area of the brain called the hippocampus had developed differently from the mice breathing clean air. The hippocampus is associated with learning, memory and depression. Other studies of mice have reported that long-term exposure to pollution leads to widespread inflammation, including inflammation of the hippocampus.

A separate study at Columbia University found that children exposed in utero to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are more likely to suffer from a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. PAHs are a group of chemicals that are the byproduct of burning coal, gasoline, trash and other sources.

What you can do

If you are concerned about the effect of air pollution on your mental health or those you live with, it only makes sense to take action to lessen your exposure to airborne particles. Here are a few steps you can take to avoid negative mental health impacts caused by air pollution:

  1. Don’t allow smoking at home. Environmental Tobacco Smoke is a major source of indoor air pollution, including fine and ultrafine particles. Tobacco smoke also contains 4,000 chemicals in addition to fine and ultrafine particles. In an environment where smoking indoors in unavoidable, smoking should be confined to only one room.
  2. Close windows or doors when outdoor particle levels are high. If you live near a busy roadway, this is especially important during morning and evening rush hour. To check the current state of the air where you live, visit
  3. Air cleaning. If you live in an area with high levels of particle pollution, one of the most significant steps you can take to lessen your exposure to pollution is to use a high-efficiency air cleaner (such as the IQAir HealthPro Plus), according to the U.S., Environmental Protection Agency. This is especially important when fine particle pollution levels are extremely high.

These are just a few of the ways to reduce exposure to particle pollutants indoors. There are also steps you can take to reduce your exposure to pollutants when you are outdoors. For more information, read the following publications from the EPA:

If you are depressed, there are steps you can take to help yourself feel better. Seek professional help. When professional help is necessary and received, most cases of depression are resolved successfully.

(NOTE: If you or someone you care about is ever struggling with suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides help 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.)

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