Psychosis more common in ‘areas plagued by pollution’

Does pollution cause PSYCHOSIS? Hearing voices and intense paranoia are more common in ‘people living in areas plagued by toxic air’

  • Toxic air was linked to psychotic experiences in young people in the UK  
  • People living in cities are more exposed to NOx and NO2, caused by vehicles
  • Reducing exposure could save people from life-long mental health issues  
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Living in a polluted city could raise the risk of psychosis, according to a study.

Scientists have for the first time linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people. 

The researchers warned this could develop into psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia or bipolar, mental health problems and suicide attempts.

Uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’, the experts warned.  

It comes amid estimates that 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050.  

Polluted air was linked to young people experiencing psychotic experiences, including paranoia and hearing voices,in a study by Kings College London

In the first study of its kind, researchers at King’s College London analysed data from 2,232 children.

The youngsters were all born in England and Wales and were assessed for psychotic experiences in private interviews at age 18. 

They responded to questions such as ‘do you hear voices that others cannot?’, and ones about feeling like they had been watched.  

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Their home addresses were taken as well as two other places they spent a lot of time.

They used an inventory that creates hourly estimates of air pollution at 20×20 metre grid points throughout the UK to paint a picture of the pollution they are exposed to.

The researchers, led by Dr Joanne Newbury, found that psychotic experiences were significantly more common in urban areas.  


Air pollution is killing more people every year than smoking, according to research published in March.  

Researchers in Germany and Cyprus estimated that air pollution caused 8.8million extra deaths in 2015 – almost double the previously estimated 4.5million.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates smoking kills about seven million people a year globally.

The researchers found that in Europe air pollution caused an estimated 790,000 deaths, between 40 and 80 percent of them from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and stroke.

The study, published in the European Heart Journal, focused on ozone and the smallest pollution particles, known as PM2.5, that are breathed into the lungs and may even be able to cross into the blood.

The researchers said new data indicated the hazardous health impact of PM2.5 was much worse than previously thought.

They urged a reduction in the upper limit for PM2.5 in the European Union, which is currently set at 25 micrograms per cubic metre, 2.5 times higher than the WHO guideline.

Here, the exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and very small particulate matter (PM2.5) was highest. 

NO2 and NOx made up 60 per cent of the link between psychosis and living in an urban area, according to the study, published in JAMA Psychiatry.   

Transport is the biggest creator of NO2 and NOx, and therefore the Government has said it will spend £3.5billion to clean up our roads.

Plans have been drawn with the Clean Air Strategy to reduce the five most dangerous air pollutants, including NO2, NOx and PM2.5, by 2030, considering it is one of the biggest threats to health in the UK. 

Dr Newbury accepted the study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, could not prove pollutants caused psychotic experiences.   

But she said: ‘Our findings suggest air pollution could be a contributing factor in the link between city living and psychotic experiences.’

Dr Newbury and colleagues said they could not rule out noise pollution as a driving factor, as noise disrupts sleep and causes stress, which in turn could cause psychosis. 

It is suggested the brain could be directly influenced by polluted air, though more trials are needed.   

This study is the first to comb through detailed geographical air pollution data and compare it to data from young people across a nation.

Co-author Professor Frank Kelly said: ‘Children are most vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution owing to the juvenility of the brain and respiratory system.

‘Uncovering the mechanisms linking the urban environment to psychosis should be an urgent health priority.’  

Senior author Dr Helen Fisher, from the IoPPN, said psychotic disorders could be prevented by dealing with the early signs in adolescence. 

She added: ‘Psychotic disorders are difficult to treat and place a huge burden on individuals, families, health systems and society more broadly.’ 


According to the Environmental protection Agency, there are six major pollutants which can impact on human health and well-being. 

Particulate matter: Particulate matter is the term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.

These particles come in many sizes and shapes and can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals.

Some are emitted directly from a source, such as construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires.

Fine particles (2.5 parts per million)are the main cause of reduced visibility (haze) in parts of the United States, including many of our treasured national parks and wilderness areas. 

Carbon monoxide: Breathing air with a high concentration of CO reduces the amount of oxygen that can be transported in the blood stream to critical organs like the heart and brain.

At very high levels, which are possible indoors or in other enclosed environments, CO can cause dizziness, confusion, unconsciousness and death.  

Nitrogen dioxide: Nitrogen dioxide primarily gets in the air from the burning of fuel. NO

It forms from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment.

Breathing air with a high concentration of NO can irritate airways in the human respiratory system. Such exposures over short periods can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, leading to respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing).   

Sulfur dioxide: The largest source of Sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere is the burning of fossil fuels by power plants and other industrial facilities.

Short-term exposures to SO can harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult. Children, the elderly, and those who suffer from asthma are particularly sensitive to effects of SO.

Ground-level Ozone: The ozone layer in the lower area of the lower portion of the stratosphere, approximately 12 to 19 miles above the surface of the planet (20 to 30 km). 

Although ozone protects us against UV radiation, when it is found at ground level it can cause health problems for vulnerable people who suffer from lung diseases such as asthma. 

It is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) – that are found in exhaust fumes – in the presence of sunlight.

Lead: Major sources of lead in the air are ore and metals processing and piston-engine aircraft operating on leaded aviation fuel. 

Other sources are waste incinerators, utilities, and lead-acid battery manufacturers. The highest air concentrations of lead are usually found near lead smelters.

 Depending on the level of exposure, lead can adversely affect the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems and the cardiovascular system.

Infants and young children are especially sensitive to even low levels of lead, which may contribute to behavioural problems, learning deficits and lowered IQ.

Source: EPA 

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