There is a wealth of research detailing all the terrible things that air pollution can do to your body, such as contributing to heart disease, lung cancer, childhood asthma and emphysema, among a range of other maladies. Often overlooked, however, are studies showing that tainted air also can provoke anxiety and unhappiness, or make it difficult to think clearly.
“We don’t normally think of air pollution as having an influence on decision-making and other behaviors, but it can have a big one,” Jackson Lu said. “It affects everything from school performance to sports officiating to financial decisions — and then some.”
Research shows that pollution can make us feel sad and depressed. It can keep us indoors when we want to be outside. It can lead to violent and self-destructive behavior. And we don’t even need to inhale pollution for it to have an effect. Just knowing that the air is contaminated can make us miserable.
“Air pollution erodes all of us — not just our physical well-being, but our mental acuity, which allows us to stay motivated, productive and resilient, and enables us to behave ethically, as well as feel good about ourselves and our lives,” Lu said.
Lu, an assistant professor of work and organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has had a longstanding interest in the little thought-about perils of air pollution. So he decided to take a closer look at its psychological, economic and social impacts. In this case, Lu did not conduct his own experiment but reviewed 178 papers that largely focused on pollutants from cars, trucks, industrial operations and power plants. His analysis appears in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology.
The studies he examined show that air pollution can contribute to annoyance, anxiety, depression and general dissatisfaction with life. Pollution is also linked to substance abuse, self-harm and suicide, as well as crime. In his own 2018 study, Lu found that high levels of pollution were associated with hikes in murder, rape, robbery and assaults, as well as property crimes such as burglary and auto theft.
For his recent paper, Lu also reviewed studies showing that pollution impairs cognitive functioning, and hurts academic performance and worker productivity. Air pollution can even drive down stock prices and lead umpires to make more bad calls. And being inside doesn’t help much. One study found that even indoor workers — those in call centers — handled fewer calls on days when air pollution was high.
“These were all indoor workers, and air pollution still negatively affected their work performance,” Lu said. “Being indoors helps a little, although pollutants can travel indoors.”
Dr. Aaron Bernstein, who directs the Center for Climate, Health and Global Environment at Harvard University, and who was not involved in the study, agreed that air pollution has a vast and dangerous influence, particularly among the vulnerable.
“The effects of air pollution harm everybody, especially the poor — because air pollution loves poverty, and makes worse the very injustices we are working to combat,” he said. “We are witnessing immense health problems. Most of the attention focuses on it causing people to die early, but very little attention is paid to potentially one of the very biggest harmful effects — the effects on our brains. There is evidence that it’s related to suicides, depression, autism in children, and is problematic for people who have to think — which is just about everybody.”
Lu said that the relationship between air pollution and anxiety isn’t necessarily straightforward. For example, people tend to stay indoors when the air quality is bad, not because they want to, but because they know they are better off avoiding the tainted air. Being stuck indoors — instead of going for a run or bike ride or a trip to the park — can cause stress and diminish your quality of life. Moreover, simply knowing that the pollution is high can inspire health concerns.
“When air pollution is heavy, or when you are surrounded by air pollution, you worry about your health, your future, your children and so on,” Lu said. “When the air is bad, your anxiety level can go up. Air pollution itself can contribute to peoples’ existential anxiety about their health.”
Further, air pollution is a factor in developing chronic inflammation, Lu said — a dangerous condition that damages DNA, which in turn hastens cellular aging. In addition to causing cancer and heart disease, inflammation can also lead to health disorders. Unlike acute inflammation — which promotes healing after an injury or infection and then goes away — chronic inflammation doesn’t stop. What’s worse, because it is often hard to identify, many people don’t even know they have it.
“It is well known that air pollution can cause increases in inflammation which, in turn, is associated with a wide variety of serious mental and physical health problems, including anxiety disorders, depression, suicide, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune and neurodegenerative disorders,” George Slavich, director of the UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research, said in an email. Slavich, who also was not involved in Lu’s paper, lauded it for exploring these risks.
“This review is timely and important,” he said. “It paints a clearer picture of how broadly air pollution can negatively impact both individual and societal well-being, and beyond that, mental health. This article ties these effects together and helps to further connect the dots.”
Reflecting on these findings, Bernstein stressed the need to curb fossil fuel pollution, which is driving climate change in addition to eroding human health.
“We have every tool we need to drastically reduce air pollution at its most basic level,” he said. “We have an amazing opportunity to take a substantial chunk out of the worldwide death toll, resolve injustice and promote economic growth and improve people’s mental health — and provide for a world that is livable for our children.”
A recent report from Environment America found that, in 2018, more than 100 million Americans lived in areas that endured more than 100 days of degraded air quality. Similarly, a report from the American Lung Association found that four in 10 Americans live in counties that have registered unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate matter.
Despite this, Lu said, the Trump Administration has been dismantling federal regulations aimed at improving air quality, weakening or eliminating rules that curb vehicle and power plant emissions, and proposing drastic cuts to the EPA’s budget, all with the potential to worsen air quality.
“Policymakers must not overlook what this is going to do to people’s lives,” Lu said. “This is no longer just about the environmental hazards of air pollution, or even about its impact on our physical bodies. This goes beyond that now, and people need to start taking it seriously.”