Research reveals alarming impact of air pollution and fine particulate matter (PM) on mental health
07/22/2021 // Virgilio Marin // Views

Air pollution can negatively impact mental health and increase people's risk of various psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety. This is the conclusion of many studies that examined how exposure to particulate matter (PM) affects mental health.

Also known as particulates, particulate matter is a mixture of fine solid and liquid particles suspended in the air, such as dust, soot, smoke and liquid droplets. These particles can be emitted directly from a primary source, such as wood stoves and forest fires. They can also form when gases turn into particulate matter.

PM is a significant health hazard due to its size. At sizes of around 2.5 to 10 micrometers, it can be inhaled and get deep into the lungs and the bloodstream. While it is better known for its effects on the lungs, plenty of studies show that PM is also toxic to the brain.

Effects of particulate matter on mental health

A review of studies from 1974 to 2017 found that long-term PM exposure is significantly associated with depression risk. It also suggested a potential link between long-term PM exposure and anxiety, as well as between short-term exposure and suicide risk.

Another study showed that particle pollution negatively impacts well-being. In the study, researchers analyzed more than 210 million social media tweets and found that people exposed to PM might have lower feelings of well-being.

There was also evidence that exposure to PM and other pollutants could drive chronic stress, interfere with cognitive development and potentially increase a person's risk of schizophrenia and dementia.


Researchers attributed these effects to PM's ability to increase oxidative stress, which could cause chronic inflammation. Inflammation in the brain could cause depressed mood and potentially increase a person's risk of mental disorders. Moreover, studies also found that PM could damage the brain and disrupt the production of cortisol, which is the body's stress hormone.

Psychiatrist Dr. James Lake noted that an individual's medical history, duration of exposure and exposure to certain air pollutants might also increase one's risk of developing a psychiatric disorder. He added that the impact of air pollution on mental health might be more severe when exposure took place during childhood and adolescence. (Related: Teenagers living in areas with high air pollution are at higher risk of psychosis.)

How to minimize your exposure to particulate matter

Minimizing your exposure to PM entails reducing the amount of particulates in the air. Here are a few tips to reduce particle pollution:

  • Stop smoking. If you do smoke, avoid doing it indoors. Smoking emits fine particles that are bad for health.
  • Avoid burning in your garden. Mulch dead leaves instead of burning them.
  • Limit burning wood. When using the fireplace or a wood stove, make sure that the wood is burned properly. Also, use wood that is well seasoned instead of wet or green and use only stoves that meet emissions standards.
  • Switch to cleaner burning appliances. Appliances such as pellet stoves produce less particulates than traditional wood stoves.
  • Take action to reduce wildfires. Use campfires carefully and practice safe backyard burning.
  • Drive less. Walk, cycle, carpool or taking public transit whenever possible.

Particle pollution can negatively impact your well-being and increase your risk of various mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Follow the tips listed here to minimize your exposure to particulates. has more about the factors affecting mental health.

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