NEW DELHI: The link between air pollution and respiratory diseases is well known, but foul air may be causing cases of depression too. Michael Brauer, professor at School of Population and Public Health at University of British Columbia who specializes in air pollution studies, told TOI that scientists are increasingly seeing links between air pollution and the mind.
Studies have found that suicides and attempted suicides increase as levels of air pollution rise. This is because of the inflammatory effects of air pollution on body and mind. Brauer, who spoke at Anil Agarwal Dialogue 2015 organized by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), told TOI in an interview that masks and air purifiers may not be very effective in addressing the scale of the problem, and the strategy should be to bring down air pollution in cities. "Masks work only when they are fixed professionally. It also depends on the kind of mask being used. N 95 (a type of mask) may be effective if it's worn properly without any gaps," he said.
Prolonged exposure to high levels of pollutants can cause lung cancer and heart disease, but short-term exposure, for instance at traffic junctions, can trigger stroke or chronic asthma. "Air pollution is affecting or leading to almost all the major conditions. It can be responsible for developing heart disease and triggering a heart attack, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer... We are also seeing a very strong link between infections and air pollution. It is more difficult for our bodies to fight infection. Ear infections are very common, especially among young children; they start as respiratory infection and move to the ears," he said.
Brauer said scientists are seeing links between air pollution and diabetes, premature births and anxiety. "These are all part of inflammation caused by air pollution. There are studies showing that when air pollution peaks, the incidence of suicide rises. The problem is, pollution particles are not living things like bacteria that can be killed." He added that pollution particles may be carriers of proteins that trigger allergies.
"I think the most effective thing is, reducing pollution in total. Only the higher income groups can buy small air filters. The emphasis should be on general health—diet and physical activity, and reducing other risk factors such as smoking and alcohol."
Brauer said curbing air pollution has immediate positive effects. After fuel quality improved in Hong Kong, morbidity reduced. "They got an extra year of life. In Ireland, after burning coal was made illegal, there was a 15% drop in deaths caused by cardiovascular and respiratory issues."