Ugh! Air Pollution Hurts Mental Health. How To Protect Yourself Without Moving

February 2, 2018

We’re all familiar with the pressing sensation of being in a city on a hot summer’s day. The air is thick, the smog hangs low, and you get home feeling an insatiable desire to clean every square inch of your body. No matter how hard you scrub, you know that the pollution has seeped into your pores, down your nose and throat, and rendered you desperately in need of an escape to the countryside.

But it’s no longer just a matter of hygiene and implications for our general wellbeing. A recent study out of Hong Kong has indicated a chilling correlation between mortality rates among those struggling with mental health disorders and particulate matter in the air. With atmospheric pollution a growing concern in urban areas around the globe, it’s time we start digging deeper and determining the true consequences of city smog. As well as, of course, how to rectify them.

Sufferers of mental and behavioral disorders often have triggers that can worsen symptoms. Keeping these triggers at bay is paramount to maximizing treatment and leading the highest quality of life. But what happens when the trigger isn’t simply something to read about or watch on the TV? What if it’s the air that we breathe?

This fascinating study out of Hong Kong Polytechnic found that mortality rates were higher on hazy days, particularly when they occurred consecutively. Combine this with higher ground-level ozone and the risk increased further. While this analysis wasn’t specifically limited to suicide as the cause of death, the study did tie into one that analyzed exactly that earlier last year.

So, what the hell is going on?

It appears that particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone do strange things to our brains. They cause inflammation, which – if chronic – causes our body to release more quinolinic acid into our spinal fluid. Quinolinic acid has been found to have a direct association with suicidal thoughts as demonstrated in a Swedish investigation.

Where is all the air pollution coming from, you might ask? The answer is, a variety of places, but here are some key industries.

Agriculture – Farming was found to be the single biggest cause of air pollution. This is due to the widescale use of nitrogenous fertilizers and ammonia as a by-product of animal waste.

What you can do: If you needed another reason to go vegan, this is it! But as well as choosing veggies over veal, try buying local and organic produce wherever possible. Support small farming practices or even grow your own. Share this news with others and encourage them to eat their way to cleaner air and better mental health.

Diesel Vehicles – Atmospheric ammonia (from animal agriculture) combines with nitrogen oxides released by our diesel engines to form particulate matter that heads straight into our respiratory systems, as well as causing chronic inflammation.

What you can do: Support the movement of electric vehicles, offset your travel, cycle or walk.

Fossil Fuel Industry – When I stop and think about it, it’s truly baffling that we’re still using fossil fuels to power our homes and run our manufacturing industries. When these release nitrogen oxides much like our cars, these combine with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight to form ground-level ozone.

What you can do: If you are able to exercise the power of choice in how you power your home or business, invest time in renewable resources. But even if you can’t go as far as that, know that you have purchasing power over things like the clothes you buy. The fast fashion industry has been named as one of the most detrimental in the world. Make a commitment to shopping sustainably and change the world one purchase at a time. Apply this ethos to all areas of your life and be amazed at the positive influence you have on others.

And in the meantime, until we see a shift in pollution levels, remember that there are a few things you can do in your home to help yourself along.

Keep it clean – Dust surfaces regularly, and invest in a good vacuum filter with a HEPA filter to suck up the bad stuff.

Leave shoes at the door – The outside world is a beautiful but filthy place. Make it the rule in your house to leave your shoes at the door and keep your floor contaminant-free.

Ditch the aerosols – Whether it’s your hairspray or air freshener, aerosols contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Remember them from earlier? If you’ve got more of them, you’re increasing the risk of ground-level ozone. Opt for a healthier alternative.

Embrace the plantlife – As well as being beautiful to look at, many houseplants literally freshen up a space by using their super plant powers to purify the air. Consider a snake plant in your bedroom, aloe in your kitchen, and ivy in your bathroom to name but a few. These are excellent at eliminating things like formaldehyde and benzene from your surroundings.

How are you trying to breathe easier?

Also by Kat: I Tried A Year Of Monthly Challenges & Changed My Life In The Process

Related: Why Algae Is Your Skin’s Secret Weapon Against Premature Aging & Pollution

I Wear A Pollution Mask In Paris. Should You Be Trying It In Your City?

Why Pollution Damages Skin and What You Can Do about It

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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