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April 2, 2024

World Health Day 2024

This week sees the return of WHO’s World Health Day which promotes key themes for health across the globe. The theme this year,  ‘My health, my right‘ includes the right to good mental health for the first time, drawing much needed attention to the links between mental health and poor air quality.


Air pollution causes up to  36,000 deaths every year in the UK; it’s one of the most worrying environmental health risk we face today. The effects of air pollution on our mental wellbeing are not fully understood yet, evidence is growing that air pollution might be the cause of a range of mental health conditions and neurodegenerative disorders.


So how does poor air quality pose a mental health risk, and what can you do to reduce your own risk?

What’s the link between air pollution and mental health?

The health risk begins when we inhale polluted air carrying particulate matter (PM) which is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in ambient air. The smallest particles are known as fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 because they have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (or one 400th of a millimetre wide). PM2.5 makes up to two thirds of all particulate matter and consists of microscopic particles of combustion particles, organic compounds, and metals.


When we inhale polluted indoor and outdoor air, PM2.5 passes from the respiratory system and into the bloodstream. allowing it to move around the body, causing problems in the lungs, heart, raising the risk of stroke and heart disease. But more recently it has also been associated with adverse changes in mental health.


Air pollution may be associated with increased depressive and anxiety symptoms and behaviours, and alterations in brain regions implicated in risk of psychopathology. Exposure to air pollution has been found to be associated with increased mental health service use among people recently diagnosed with psychotic and mood disorders. Air pollution has been significantly associated with increased risk of psychiatric disorders.


Air pollution effects on learning

Children and young people are at risk from exposure to air pollution is associated with lower test scores and increased likelihood of suspension from school in industrial areas. Long-term exposure to air pollution can impede cognitive performance in verbal and maths tests, and becomes more pronounced as people age.

Neurodegenerative disease and air pollution

Living close to heavy traffic has associated with a higher incidence of dementia. For example, a positive association has been found between residential levels of air pollution across London and being diagnosed with dementia. Fine articulate matter PM2.5 in polluted air can cause central nervous system (CNS) diseases, including a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Evidence of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone disease has also been found in the brains of younger people exposed to air pollution.


Areas of the brain including cerebral white matter, cortical grey matter, and basal ganglia might be the targets of traffic related air pollution leading to damage of the brain which could be involved in cognition changes.

How to reduce your exposure poor quality air

  • Check the air quality index before going outside to check your air quality. If it’s high, avoid exercising outdoors and heavily congested traffic areas/peak times where possible.
  • Wear a FFP2 NR mask in highly polluted areas (to filter fine particles).
  • Turn off your car engine when parked up or in stationary traffic.
  • Consider using an air purifier in your home and car.
  • Exercise regularly, eat a well-balanced healthy diet and get adequate sleep to strengthen your immune system so you are better able to combat the effects of air pollution. 
  • Drink plenty of filtered or distilled water to keep hydrated so the body is better able to deal with the effects of air pollution. 
  • If you use a log burner, make sure the wood you burn wood with low moisture content and no chemical additives (such as preserved wood, like pallets or paint).
  • Avoid smoking, burning or using harsh chemicals.
  • At home, use an air purifier with a HEPA filter to remove fine particles.
  • Open windows regularly to cross ventilate rooms and improve indoor air quality (unless air pollution is high outside).
  • Avoid burning candles, incense or other items that emit smoke or gas that increase carbon monoxide levels within the home, especially those using artificial fragrances.

Further reading

Air pollution: How to reduce harm to your health – Harvard Health

Image credit: WHO

The information on our website should not be used as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other professional healthcare provider. If you have any specific questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.

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