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Air pollution linked to increased use of mental health services

Exposure to air pollution is linked to increased use of mental health services, according to a new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. 

The researchers analysed data from 13,887 people aged 15 years and over who had contact with South London and Maudsley NHS Trust (SLaM) services between 2008 and 2013. 

Anonymised mental health records were linked with a quarterly average concentration of air pollution at the residential address of the participants. 

The researchers found that for every 3?g/m3 increase in particulate matter (PM2.5) and 15?g/mper cubic meter increase in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) there was an increased risk of having an inpatient stay of 11% and 18% respectively. 

The results also showed that increases in PM2.5 and NO2 were associated with a 7% and 32% increased risk of requiring community-based mental healthcare for the same period. 

a woman rests her head on another person's shoulder

Dr Ioannis Bakolis, lead author of the study from King’s College London said: ‘There is already evidence linking air pollution to the incidence of mental disorders, but our novel findings suggest that air pollution could also play a role in the severity of mental disorders for people with pre-existing mental health conditions.

‘Our research indicates that air pollution is a major risk factor for increased severity of mental disorders. It is also a risk factor that is easily modifiable which suggests more public health initiatives to reduce exposure such as low emission zones could improve mental health outcomes as well as reduce the high healthcare costs caused by long-term chronic mental illness.’

According to the researchers, if the UK urban population’s exposure to PM2.5 was reduced by just a few units to the World Health Organisation’s recommended annual limit (10?g/m3), this would reduce the usage of mental health services by around 2%, thereby saving tens of millions of pounds each year in associated healthcare costs.

Photo by Külli Kittus

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