Pollution and depression: staying mentally healthy amidst an inversion

As record-breaking heat waves cool and summer fires burn out, a muddled atmosphere warns us of the toxic effects these events may have on our minds and bodies.

A steady wind blows clouds over the Wasatch mountains while clearing Utah skies. Photo by Joshua Sperry.

Have you noticed the sheet of gray that has enveloped Utah County this past month? Likewise, have you noticed feeling unusually gloomy or irritable? As it turns out, there is a likely correlation between these things.

In a study conducted by clinical fellow Isobel Braithwaite and others, it was found that there was a “significant association” between prolonged exposure to PM2.5 (fine particulate matter in the air) and anxiety or depression. “Our findings support the hypothesis of an association between long-term PM2.5 exposure and depression, as well as supporting hypotheses of possible associations between long-term PM2.5 exposure and anxiety,” explained Braithwaite.

When asked about the size of this dangerous particulate matter, Dr. Mark J. Pamer, a prominent physician in Port St. Lucie, Florida, stated that, “The main pollution molecule … PM2.5, which stands for “particulate matter” [measures] up to 2.5 micron in size.” For comparison, a single strand of hair is approximately 50 microns wide.

Although much of the science behind this correlation is still being researched, it has been found that, “Different air pollutants and in particular PM and nitric oxides have been associated with poor mental health … [and] long exposition to PM2.5 has been associated with an increased risk of new onset of depressive symptoms,” stated professor Massimiliano Buoli and others. Furthermore, Pamer also explained that “[Since] PM2.5 are so small … they can make it all the way down into the lungs and into the blood stream. They are also small enough to cross the blood brain barrier … and that is where people get into trouble.”

Fortunately, the government and other medical institutions are aware of this danger, are working on minimizing it, and have provided suggestions on how to stay safe during its stay. The American Lung Association recommends “Checking air pollution forecasts in your area” which can be done by visiting airnow.gov. The American Lung Association also recommends avoiding outdoor exercise and exposure as much as possible when air pollution reaches dangerous levels.

Dr. Pamer additionally makes the following recommendations: 1. Stay inside when pollution is at unhealthy levels; 2. Exercise indoors on the bad days; 3. Escape to a location where pollution is less (if you can); 4. Make sure to take all medications that have been prescribed.

As record-breaking heat waves cool and summer fires burn across the country, a muddled atmosphere warn us of the toxic effects these events may have on our minds and bodies. Although we are blessed to live in a beautiful state where there is much to do outside, when pollution levels are high, please keep yourself safe by considering staying inside and waiting for the air to clear, especially if you are prone to mental illness.

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