Denver, CO

Kids breathing bad air may cause mental problems later, study shows

David Heitz

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(Alexei Scutari)

One of the things most Denverites agree on is that our air quality stinks sometimes. This was true especially before COVID-19, when pollution-spewing cars choked Denver’s freeways during work rush hours.

Denver has experienced explosive growth in the past several years. With more people are more cars and more industry and more pollution, and some days it’s bad enough to make you say, “Ick.”

Now a study published this week shows that children who live in places with poor air quality are at greater risk for mental illness. The original investigation was published in JAMA Network Open, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“In this cohort study of 2,039 U.K.-born children followed up for two decades, early-life exposure to nitrogen oxides was significantly associated with general psychopathology at 18 years of age, representing greater internalizing, externalizing, and thought disorder symptoms,” the study found. “The associations were not attributable to individual or family-level factors or to disadvantageous neighborhood characteristics.”

The investigation was led by Aaron Reuben from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, Durham.

How polluted is Denver’s air?

Denver’s nitrogen oxide levels climbed as high as 23 parts per billion during the past year, according to an online air quality monitor. The past year has seen far less pollution due to less traffic because of the COVID-19 restrictions.

The Environmental Protection Agency says cities can’t exceed 53 parts per billion of nitrogen oxides averaged over a year, according to the 2019 Colorado Air Quality Report. “Colorado exceeded the annual mean NO2 standard of 53 ppb in 1977 at the Denver CAMP monitor, but concentrations have shown a gradual decline since this time,” the report states. “Levels have declined minimally but remained below the NAAQS at both the Welby and CAMP monitors over the past ten years in terms of both the annual mean and one-hour NAAQS values.”

The authors make a strong argument with their findings that pollution and psychosis among children are linked. “On average, children and adolescents exposed to higher levels of continuously measured nitrogen oxide air pollution had greater psychopathology at the transition to adulthood,” they reported.

The more pollution, the more chance for psychosis

The study showed that the higher the levels of nitrogen oxide exposure, the greater the chances for psychosis.

After adjusting for sex, “each interquartile range increment increase in nitrogen oxide exposure was associated with a 1.45-point increase in general psychopathology,” the authors continued. “Adjustment for family socioeconomic status, family psychiatric history, participant history of emotional and behavioral problems, and participant tobacco smoking did not change the results.”

The highest levels of pollution exposure exceeded World Health Organization guidelines. “After full adjustment for family and individual factors, participants in the highest quartile of nitrogen oxide exposure in childhood and adolescence scored 2.62 points higher on general psychopathology than their peers in the bottom three quartiles.”

Through several tests, the authors excluded other factors that may influence mental illness. “Nitrogen oxide-psychopathology associations were found to be independent of urbanicity; individual and family risks, such as family psychiatric history; and disadvantageous neighborhood characteristics correlated with air pollution, including deprivation, dilapidation, disconnection, and dangerousness,” they wrote.

Study sample saw ‘moderate’ levels of nitrogen oxide

“These results collectively suggest that youths persistently exposed to moderate levels of nitrogen oxide air pollution may experience greater overall liability to psychiatric illness by young adulthood—a liability independent of other individual, family, and neighborhood influences on mental health.”

But what’s the mechanism of action? Why, specifically, is pollution during childhood causes psychosis?

“One previously proposed hypothesis to explain these findings is that disruptions to effective central nervous system development, whether genetic or environmental, result, along a gradient, in less effective control over emotions, reflecting more difficulties in inhibiting negative emotions and cognitive and behavioral responses to emotions,” the study found.

“This ineffective control can arise alongside other markers of impaired central nervous system development, such as lower cognitive function (thinking and learning), which has also been reported, along a gradient, among children exposed to outdoor air pollutants.”

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO
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