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Is air pollution damaging your mental health?

How the black smog and the black dog could be linked.

Between 1 and 8 January 2017, London breached its annual air pollution limits. In just a week, the city broke EU regulations that limit nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions – which are produced by diesel vehicles. It is a publishable, verifiable, undeniable scientific fact that this gas is connected to heart and breathing problems. The UK’s air is dirty, and it is prematurely killing us. But can it also make your life more difficult in the meantime?

Depression; anxiety; Alzheimer’s; poor academic performance – these are just some of the things that scientists have connected to air pollution in recent years. Research is relatively young, and it is dangerous to establish cause and effect too freely, but it now seems apparent that the smog affecting our bodies could also be affecting our brains.

“Our study found that those with higher exposures to fine particulate matter, a type of air pollution, were more likely to experience high anxiety symptom levels,” says Dr Melinda Power, a professor at George Washington University who warns against establishing causality too early. In 2015, Power published her research, which used data from 70,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study who then filled out a survey on their anxiety levels. She discovered that fine particles in the air (which come from, among other things, cars and factories) were connected to increased anxiety levels, and that the more recent the exposure, the higher the level of anxiety experienced.

“As relatively little research has been done on the relationship between air pollution and mental health, further research is needed to confirm our findings,” she says, noting that women in more polluted areas may experience other stresses that caused their anxiety.  

When it comes to identifying a cause for the recent epidemic in mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, often simpler explanations get precedence in the media. The idea that social networks like Facebook “make us” depressed has been flying around for years. This is easy for individuals to identify as an affect on their mental health, if it is affecting them that way. But not many of us stop to consider how the invisible air around us might be affecting our mental health, and it is much harder to find any anecdotal evidence of whether this is the case. For more answers, we must turn to science’s most faithful research assistant: mice.

“We got into this research by accident,” says Dr Randy Nelson, a professor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “I was walking across campus and saw a trailer that was being used to expose mice to particulate matter. The work was being directed by a cardiologist who had demonstrated that exposure to fine airborne particulate matter caused inflammation in the heart.

“It seemed reasonable to hypothesize that exposure to this type of air pollution would also cause inflammation in the brain and that is often associated with depression and cognitive impairments.”

Nelson and his team exposed mice to fine particle air pollution in the same high levels that are found in urban areas. They discovered that after ten months, mice exposed to polluted air took longer to complete a maze task than mice exposed to filtered air. More incredibly, the “polluted” mice also exhibited depressive symptoms and “behaviour despair”, such as an unwillingness to swim when placed in water. Researchers at Duke University also found pregnant mice exposed to diesel exhaust had offspring who exhibited increased anxiety.

When I ask Nelson if rising levels of air pollution could be causing rising levels of depression, he says it is “possibly a contributing factor” and points towards other environmental factors – such as bright lights at night interrupting our circadian rhythms. Like Power, he feels that more research needs to be done before such wide-reaching conclusions can be drawn.

But just how much research will be enough to prompt us to act? In 2015, scientists at the University of Utah found a link between air pollution and suicide in middle-aged men. It is also already proven that air pollution affects our physical health, and Power notes that this, in turn, can affect us mentally. “Air pollution may be related to mental health, particularly anxiety, through effects on oxidative stress and systemic inflammation or through promotion or aggravation of chronic diseases,” she says. Put simply, being sick can make us depressed.

(Side note: according to the psychologist Dr Ken McLaughlin, the current “politics of fear” can also increase anxiety, so reading about air pollution also probably doesn’t help. Sorry about that.)

And yet while research about how air pollution affects mental health is in its infancy, there is significantly more information about the link between air pollution and cognitive health. Power has found that men with higher past exposures to traffic-related air pollution had worse cognitive functions. An extensive 2012 article by the American Psychological Association outlines the many studies in this area.

So where does that leave us? A spokesperson for the European Commission, which sets our air quality targets, says the World Health Organisation is now reviewing evidence about mental health, and new targets will take this into account. Power says more “big, high-quality, longitudinal studies are needed”, yet Andrea Lee, a healthy air campaigner for ClientEarth, says we need to act sooner rather than later. “As research continues in all of these areas, what is beyond doubt is that air pollution in the UK is above legal limits,” she says.

Whether they are linked or not, it now clear we are facing two public health emergencies that need more attention. Mental health disorders and air pollution can both prematurely rob us of our lives. Depression can feel like a black cloud that bears down on you from all angles, smothering your entire being. Coincidentally or not, so can smog.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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