Two new reports featured in The British Medical Journal point to air pollution as a potential threat to both mental and cardiovascular health. Specifically, higher exposure to fine particulate matter (from industrial sources such as automobile exhaust and power plant emissions) as well as gaseous emissions was linked to increased anxiety and stroke risk.
One report focused on data collected as part of a long-term study of more than 70,000 female nurses in the United States. From the information gathered, researchers were able to determine that the women who lived closer to major roads—and therefore higher levels of pollution—were more likely to experience increased anxiety symptoms such as fearfulness, worrying, and withdrawal. Additionally, symptoms were found to be strongest when exposure was more recent.
So, why the increased risk? Experts believe part of the reason may be because air pollution triggers an inflammation response in the body, which in turn causes the release of certain chemicals linked to psychological distress as well as changes in mood and behavior.
A second report focused on more than 100 different studies conducted worldwide. The goal was to determine whether or not a relationship exists between short-term air pollution and a higher number of stroke-related hospitalizations and fatalities. Indeed, populations exposed to higher levels of both fine particulate matter and gaseous pollutants (including carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide) saw a significant rise in stroke rates—which rose exponentially as exposure levels increased.
The takeaway, say researchers involved in analyzing the data, is that we need to take steps to reduce exposure to air pollution and improve overall air quality, especially in highly populated areas where pollutants pose a serious risk to human health.