LWL | How Air Pollution affects Human Psychological versus Physiological Well-being

By Ibrahim Ismail


The effects air pollution can have on human physiological health are widely known. The effects on human psychological well-being, however, are often overlooked. Environmental shifts caused by air pollution, such as ozone layer depletion, contribute to heatwaves and other atmospheric changes, which cause extreme health issues and even death. Research on elderly participants exposed to different pollutants showed that short-term exposure to polluted air caused reductions in carotid elasticity, which increases risk for hypertension. Also, studies on Concentrated Ambient Particles reveal just how toxic the metals present in polluted air really are, affecting cardiovascular function and increasing inflammation in certain areas of the body. Finally, an experiment on mice found that prenatal exposure to diesel exhaust particles increases anxiety and cognitive impairments in mice offspring. Although there isn’t much research on the psychological effects air pollution can cause, its effect on physiological well-being is explicit and more intense, contributing to increased mortality rates and decreased body resistance to disease.

It is widely known that air pollution can have many negative effects on our physiological health. However, few acknowledge the impact air pollution can have on our psychological well-being.

Over the past century, air pollution mortality rates have spiked due to countless rapid changes in our environment too fast for our bodies to adapt to. One of these environmental changes is hole formation in the ozone layer (Doherty). Holes in the Ozone layer can cause heatwaves such as the ones that killed thousands of people in the United Kingdom in 2003 and 2005. Most atmospheric scientists and emissions experts would argue that the impacts air pollution has on physiological well-being vastly outweighs the effects that it would have on psychological wellbeing. This is due to the fact that air pollution can cause immediate short-term effects to those exposed to polluted air. A good example of this is a study done by Environmental Health where 20 participants aged 60-75 years old with little to no smoking history were flown out to numerous areas in the world with different ambient air pollution levels. Blood, urine, and sputum samples were collected and blood pressure, endothelial function, and many more tests were collected from participants (Scheers 2). One of the team’s findings indicated that “short-term exposure to air pollution results in reductions in carotid elasticity among [the] elderly population.” (Scheers 1). Although the effects on Cartoid elasticity were small, “previous studies reported that arterial stiffness predicts progression to hypertension in normotensive (normal blood pressure) individuals.” This is because elasticity-lacking arteries are less adaptive and would be at greater risk of becoming weaker, narrower, and damaging other body organs if they were to experience even mild hypertension. It is evident that people who are exposed to polluted air regularly, such as people living in urban areas are at greater risk of Hypertension and any illness that may come from it. Unfortunately, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

In a study conducted by the NYU School of Medicine, scientists studied the effects Concentrated Ambient Particles (CAPs) and Fine Particulate Matter (FPM) had on humans and animals. To get more information, more rigorous testing was performed on animals such as Intratracheal instillation which involves “the introduction of substances directly into the trachea” (Chen). The scientists found that polluted air, specifically air polluted with transitional metals such as chromium (Cr),  zinc (Zn), nickel (Ni), iron (Fe), copper (Cu), and vanadium (V) are reported to be likely toxic. This is because of their “ability to generate reactive oxygen species (ROS) in biological tissues” (Chen). The build-up of these metals and other chemicals and substances in the body can lead to changes in the function of the cardiovascular system as well as increase inflammation throughout the body. The worst part is that these findings are on chemicals and substances that we are exposed to in our everyday lives such as the particulates that are emitted from our cars. However, air pollution can begin diminishing human health before the baby leaves the mother’s uterus. 

A study by Duke University Medical Center exposed mouse dams with pregnant mice to diesel exhaust particles via oropharyngeal aspiration during the last third of pregnancy. When the offspring from these dams reached 60 days postnatal (after birth) they ran anxiety, inflammatory, and cognitive tests on the mice. The experimenters found that exposure to diesel exhaust before birth caused increased levels of anxiety. The exposure didn’t affect all offspring equally with the male mice also experiencing impaired cognitive function, an increase in pro-inflammatory interleukin, and a decrease in anti-inflammatory IL-10, which is used by the body to fight tumors (Bolton 1075). An imbalance of inflammation-regulating genes can lead to other health problems. 

Although the association between mental health problems and chronic exposure to ambient air pollution A study looking to find mental health associations to long-term exposure to ambient air pollution found that participants with depressive symptoms are more likely to consider suicide with consistent particulate matter exposure (Kim 1). In the previous study, positive correlation between anxiety levels and exposure to ambient air pollution were found, but that’s about it. Few other reputable sources have discussed this correlation.

Although not much research has been done on the psychological effects of air pollution, It is clear that physiological wellbeing is more vastly affected by air pollution than psychological wellbeing due to the fact that air pollution has increased mortality rates in some places simply due to the physiological stress in can put on the body as well as the atmospheric effects that it can cause that may worsen this stress.

Works Cited

Doherty RM, et al. “Current and Future Climate- and Air Pollution-Mediated Impacts on Human Health.” Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, vol. 8, Jan. 2009, p. S8. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.nhcproxy.mnpals.net/10.1186/1476-069X-8-S1-S8

Scheers, Hans, et al. “Changing Places to Study Short-Term Effects of Air Pollution on Cardiovascular Health: A Panel Study.” Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, vol. 17, no. 1, Nov. 2018, p. N.PAG. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.nhcproxy.mnpals.net/10.1186/s12940-018-0425-7.

Chen, Lung Chi, and Morton Lippmann. “Effects of Metals within Ambient Air Particulate Matter (PM) on Human Health.” Inhalation Toxicology, vol. 21, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 1–31. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.nhcproxy.mnpals.net/10.1080/08958370802105405.

Hautekiet, Pauline, et al. “Air Pollution in Association with Mental and Self-Rated Health and the Mediating Effect of Physical Activity.” Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, vol. 21, no. 1, Mar. 2022, pp. 1–13. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.nhcproxy.mnpals.net/10.1186/s12940-022-00839-x.

Bolton, Jessica L., et al. “Maternal Stress and Effects of Prenatal Air Pollution on Offspring Mental Health Outcomes in Mice.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 121, no. 9, Sept. 2013, pp. 1075–82. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.nhcproxy.mnpals.net/10.1289/ehp.1306560.

Kim, Hyun-Jin, et al. “Relationship between Chronic Exposure to Ambient Air Pollution and Mental Health in Korean Adult Cancer Survivors and the General Population.” BMC Cancer, vol. 21, no. 1, Dec. 2021, pp. 1–9. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.nhcproxy.mnpals.net/10.1186/s12885-021-09013-x.

Dales, Robert E., and Sabit Cakmak. “Does Mental Health Status Influence Susceptibility to the Physiologic Effects of Air Pollution? A Population Based Study of Canadian Children.” PLoS ONE, vol. 11, no. 12, Dec. 2016, pp. 1–13. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.nhcproxy.mnpals.net/10.1371/journal.pone.0168931.