Air pollution is officially linked to depression in young people

Damn, what won't climate change do?

Young man with facial mask during air pollution
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Mental Health

Ever since the pandemic began, it’s been increasingly difficult to get some serotonin around here, but we can’t actually blame all of our mental health woes on COVID. It turns out that air pollution could be a factor triggering depression for younger Americans, according to a small but illuminating study. Looking forward to when researchers factor the rest of us in because pollution is, indeed, universally depressing.

The peer-reviewed study, published in Developmental Psychology this week, looked at 213 teenageers aged 9 to 13 years old in the Bay Area, per EurekAlert. The researchers tracked the tweens’ mental health for four years and monitored data on the air quality where they lived. They specifically analyzed the kids’ exposure to ozone, which is a chemical reaction that occurs when air pollution and sunlight interact. Their analysis found that the adolescents who lived in areas with higher levels of ozone developed far higher rates of depression, even when the pollution where they lived didn’t exceed the EPA’s air quality standards.

Although we’ve known for a while that air pollution contributes to all sorts of physical ailments, from asthma to cardiovascular disease, per the NIH, this is the first study to examine the link between ozone pollution and the onset of depression specifically. A possible theory from the study is that ozone increases inflammation in the body, which has been linked to fatigue, anxiety and depression.

Although the study is intriguing, it definitely has its limitations — it’s not possible to say whether ozone by itself triggered depression, especially considering that regions with more pollution are typically more socioeconomically depressed and less white. The researchers tried to control for other stressful life factors, such as major illness or parental divorce, but it’s not possible to completely isolate every element that could lead to depression.

Still, the study is a stark reminder that environmental degradation has deep and scary impacts on our psychological health that we don’t yet fully comprehend. Studies like this can also help us take steps to improve the mental health of future generations by limiting their exposure to ozone on days when it’s particularly high.