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Air Pollution And Its Impact On Mental Health

It is important for each one of us to take certain measures at the individual level, read how can one reduce or prevent the effects of air pollution


Delhi is reeling under a major public health emergency with the air quality hitting an all-time low. For the last two days, the city has been engulfed by a reasonably thick blanket of smog with the air quality touching hazardous levels. Add to this the fact that the air quality index (AQI) was very severe with high particulate matter standing at 2.5 level. Air pollution is a major cause of concern in India and can cause issues such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases. Statistics indicate that 92% of the world's population resides in places with air quality that is way below the acceptable standards. Air pollution is also responsible for about 88% of premature deaths in low- and middle-income countries.

Health effects of air pollution
Increased air pollution can affect even an unborn child in the womb. While a normal adult breathes about 6 litres of air per minute at rest, this increases to about 20 litres during physical activity. Inhaling polluted air in this quantity can cause numerous ill-effects on a person's health. Toxic particles can affect blood flow when they pass through the blood vessels, eventually leading to thrombosis. Air pollution can lead to hypertension, strokes, and brain ischemia as also cognitive disorders and neuro-degenerative illnesses. Toxins in the air can adversely impact heart function and increase heart rhythm problems. Women who inhale this polluted air are more prone to miscarriage, and other complications.

The lesser known effects 
Recent studies have now found a link between mental health and air pollution. There is greater risk of seasonal affective disorders, especially depression, when the whether is smoggy with limited sunshine. There is higher risk of anxiety disorders and panic attacks with high levels of pollution in the air. Air pollution takes a toll on mental well-being directly and indirectly. Outdoor activities like play time for children or walks for elderly become curbed, affecting their physical and psychological health.

According to a study conducted by the University of Washington there is a strong connection between psychological distress and pollution. Physical and mental well-being is also defined by certain social determinants such as availability of healthy food, clean surroundings, and neighbourhood safety. When the air is polluted, and the environment is not conducive for outdoor activities, people tend to spend more time indoors. This not only hampers their day-to-day activities but also leads to a sense of isolation. The parameters considered in the study included feelings of sadness, nervousness, and hopelessness. These were then used to assess the level of mental stress depending on the pollution levels. People living in areas with higher pollution levels experience more of these symptoms than those living in cleaner surroundings.

Other hazards
The effects of air pollution on both the lungs and heart have already been quantified to a large extent. High sulfur dioxide contents may cause chronic bronchitis. High nitrogen dioxide contents lead to precipitation of asthma. High particulate matter PM10 and air pollutants sized between 2.5 to 10 microns can damage the lungs and cause asthma due to air flow and inflammation. Particulate matter PM 2.5 and air pollutants less than 2.5 micron in size can enter the lungs and damage the lung lining. They can also be absorbed and cause inflammation of the heart arteries.
In conclusion

The air quality in Delhi has hit an all-time low with the air quality index of the city shooting up to 451 on a scale where the maximum level is 500. Inhaling this air can be equated to smoking 50 cigarettes a day and is detrimental to healthy individuals and those with existing health conditions alike! This is a public health emergency as the city has practically turned into a gas chamber. To reduce or prevent the effects of air pollution, it is also important for each one of us to take certain measures at the individual level. Improving the air quality is a collective responsibility. Each one of us can do something every day to prevent or at least help control the air pollution levels and keep the environment healthy. This will ensure that we are sound not only physically but also mentally.

"    Reduce your car usage: Instead of driving to the grocery store every other day, make one trip every week, stocking up on everything you need all at once. Carpool with your neighbors and friends. Use public transportation as much as you can.
"    Walk or cycle for short distance commutes.
"    Keep your vehicles well-maintained for efficient functioning with regular servicing to reduce harmful exhaust emissions and get regular pollution checks done. Inflate your car's tyres to the pressure recommended in the car manual. This will produce the best performance for your car and reduce fuel usage.
"    Avoid burning candles, dhoop or incense sticks at home.
"    Say no to plastic. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
"    Quit smoking.
"    Plant more trees and grass to limit the areas of bare soil and reduce dust in the air.
"    Be a strong advocate for measures to control emission of air pollutants. Be active participants in activities to fight air pollution such as odd/even vehicle rule. Follow all rules and laws as enforced by the state.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Dr Sunil Mittal

The author is Director CIMBS India, Co-founder and Past President, Indian Association of Private Psychiatry and was the Organizing Chairman of the 21st World Congress of Mental Health 2017

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