Over the past few weeks, the air quality in Delhi has been alarmingly toxic. On Wednesday again, it was in the “very poor” category. This is not a new problem. Every winter, North India faces highly increased levels of air pollution compounded with poor air quality through the rest of the year as well.

So it isn’t surprising that 22 out of the world’s 30 most-polluted cities are in India. In India, ambient air pollution is the fourth-largest killer – after high systolic blood pressure, high fasting plasma glucose and smoking. It is responsible for 0.98 million premature deaths every year in the country.

However, air pollution does not only affect individuals physically. The psychological implications of air pollution cannot be understated. In recent years, numbers studies in several parts of the world have borne this out.

Impaired judgment

In 2020, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology systematically examined and reviewed 178 published scientific articles to show that air pollution reduces people’s happiness and life satisfaction.

Anotherstudy, published in 2018 in a journal called the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that long-term exposure to air pollution directly impairs attention, memory, maths ability, verbal and non-verbal intelligence and decision-making quality. This impairment has indirect negative consequences on a wide range of activities.

For instance, a study in the US published in 2018 in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists shows that in case of high levels of carbon monoxide and PM 2.5, or particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, professional baseball umpires are more likely to make incorrect calls, and investors are more likely to sell winning assets while retaining failing assets.

Many researchers also estimate that air pollution can increase the severity of existing mental conditions. Several disorders are likely to be aggravated due to air pollution. A 2017 National Social Life, Health and Aging Project study in the US found that an increase in PM 2.5 is significantly associated with depressive and anxiety symptoms.

In addition, the results of a national cohort study in Denmark published in The Lancet in 2020 shows that higher air pollution (nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, and Nitric oxide or NOX) during childhood is associated with subsequent elevated schizophrenia risk in later years.

Scientists from University of Southern California observed in their study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2013 that nitrogen dioxide, PM 2.5 and PM 10 exposure during pregnancy and the first year of life could lead to autism.

Air pollution has also been identified to increase the risk for many neurological disorders. A study in Taiwan published in Environment International Journal in 2019 noticed a positive relationship between nitrogen dioxide pollution and vascular dementia. A 2019 study in the Archives of Medical Research Journal
has shown that long-term exposure to air pollution is directly linked with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, among others.

Existential anxiety

Furthermore, as people become aware of the impact of poor air on health, it can lead to an increasing sense of existential anxiety, according to a Columbia University study published in Psychological Science in 2018, after analysing a nine-year panel of 9,360 American cities.

Air pollution also hampers the economy, as people in the academic and professional setting exhibit lowered performance and absenteeism indicated by a study published in Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health. However, this impact is not even, given the differentiation in wealth and resources. Air pollution has a relatively more significant impact on the middle- and low-income groups, women and the rural-urban population, says a 2020 study by the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology, published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research.

Of concern is the potential for “environmental injustice”, as high-income individuals have access to expensive products and solutions that enable them to deal with the effects of air pollution.

Children take the biggest hit, being highly vulnerable due to their immature immune system and involvement in extensive outdoor physical activities. Prenatal exposure to air pollution has been found not only to affect the developing brain of the fetus but also to delay the process of development itself and lead to problems such as obsessive thoughts, aggressive behavior and lack of coping skills, indicated a s tudy published in Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology by the Medical University of Lublin, Poland.

Another recent study by Gautam Buddha University on the behaviour of school children in Greater Noida analysed cases of children exposed to air pollution who could reportedly not concentrate for long on a particular task. They were restless and depicted problems such as dependency, confusion, crying, disobedience, appetite issues among others.

A study in 2010 by the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, looked at a sample of 1,819 Indian school-going children (9-17 years) and found that exposure to PM 10 increased the risks of developing attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

It is imperative that more in-depth studies are conducted in India. In areas with high air pollution levels, efforts should be made for early detection and treatment. with a focus on high-risk groups.

In December, the Delhi government shut down schools due to high levels of air pollution. However, such solutions are temporary. We need preventive and long-term mitigation strategies. After all, a reduction in pollution levels not only contributes to lowering the possibility of physical and mental disorders but also improves society’s overall well-being.

Arushi Jindal is an independent researcher working in the area of community psychology. Ajay Singh Nagpure is head of the air quality programme at World Resources Institute India.