The U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI) system, a measure used by the EPA to determine daily air quality (AQ), categorizes air quality via these six colors:
- Green: good AQ
- Yellow: acceptable AQ, but with a slight risk for individuals who are especially sensitive to air contaminates
- Orange: unhealthy for sensitive people
- Red: unhealthy for most people with or without sensitivity to air pollution
- Purple: very unhealthy/health alert issued by the EPA
- Maroon: hazardous/emergency AQ conditions
You can check your city’s daily air quality level here.
Although it is rare for any place in the U.S. to receive a maroon AQ grade, countries like India, Saudi Arabia, China, and Africa frequently issue AQ warnings severe enough for people to have to wear masks outside for their safety.
What we breathe has a profound effect on our physical and mental health. Toxic chemicals are quickly absorbed by our lungs when we inhale. These chemicals almost immediately enter the bloodstream, where they reach all areas of the body, including the brain.
Have you heard of the old saying “You are what you eat?” Recent research has discovered that we are also what we breathe.
What are the Top Five Air Pollutants?
Ground Level (Tropospheric) Ozone
Generated by chemical interactions between volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx), ground level ozone (GLO) contains pollutants that are discharged by gas-powered vehicles, chemical plants, and refineries. Ultraviolet radiation causes the chemical interactions that are responsible for ground level ozone. Urban environments frequently experience unhealthy GLO levels on sunny, hot days.
Also called particulate matter pollution, particle pollution refers to the mixture of liquid droplets and solid particles in the air. Components of particle pollution include sulfuric acid, ammonium nitrate, soot, dust, and metals.
Carbon Monoxide (CO)
A toxic gas formed when fuel carbon is not burned completely, CO is emitted by wild fires, gas-powered vehicles, furnaces, and fireplaces.
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)
Burning fossil fuels is the biggest source of sulfur dioxide. Just short-term exposure to this toxic gas can damage the lungs and make it difficult to breathe. Some research suggests that SO2 is likely carcinogenic.
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
Composed of oxygen and nitrogen, NO2 forms from burning diesel, gasoline, oil, and coal. Nitrogen dioxide contributes to the worsening of respiratory conditions, especially asthma, COPD, and bronchitis. Like sulfur dioxide, CO2 may contribute to the development of lung cancer.
Air Quality and Mental Health: Your Brain on Smog
The field of environmental mental health is now a heavily researched sub-category of psychiatry, due to the flood of evidence indicating how dirty air can harm your brain and stress the body.
Here are several findings of recent studies investigating the correlation between the environment and mental health:
- Accumulated research results involving humans and animals support the detrimentally inflammatory effects of particulate matter on the central nervous system. Doctors think this type of systemic inflammation increases the risk of anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, and other mental illnesses [Neuroinflammation and Oxidative Stress in Psychosis and Psychosis Risk]
- Exposure to particulate matter not only produces oxidative stress within the body but also has neurotoxic effects on various brain structures, such as the hypothalamus. Cortisol production is mediated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When air pollution constantly puts stress on this axis, the amount of cortisol remains abnormally high in the bloodstream. Excess cortisol can disrupt both physical and mental processes and cause anxiety, depression, and even more severe mental illnesses [Air Pollution (Particulate Matter) Exposure and Associations with Depression, Anxiety, Bipolar, Psychosis and Suicide Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis]
- A 2019 study that include U.S. and Denmark citizens found people who were exposed to unhealthy or hazardous air pollution are much more likely to suffer from psychiatric illnesses such as personality disorders, schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder [Pollution and Our Mental Health]
- Nearly 2000 women living in Seattle, Yakima, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and other large cities, were recruited during their pregnancy for a longitudinal study that investigated the effects of nitrogen dioxide on their unborn children. Researchers found that the higher concentration of NO2 that these women inhaled during their first six months of pregnancy, the more likely their children developed behavioral and/or cognitive problems [Linking Air Pollution and Child Brain Development]
- Neuroimaging scans suggest that air pollutants may specifically target the brain’s white matter, basal ganglia, and gray matter in the cerebral cortex. White matter constitutes the inner brain and supports brain cell communication while gray matter constitutes the outer brain and supports brain cell processes. In addition, evidence indicates that people living in urban areas where pollution is typically at moderate and unhealthy levels are at a higher risk of developing schizophrenia than people living in rural or suburban areas [Air Pollutants and Daily Hospital Admissions for Psychiatric Care: A Review]
What Can You Do To Reduce Your Risk of Mental Illness Due to Air Pollution?
Monitor Your Local and Indoor Air Quality
Your local news website should have daily Air Quality Index information indicating the level of air pollution in your county. In addition, home air quality monitors are available that track the quality of the air you are breathing inside your home. These monitors provide information about the amount of carbon dioxide, VOCs, and other particulate matter currently circulating in your home’s airflow.
Use Air Purifiers
Several types of air purifiers can significantly reduce the amount of particulate matter in your home. HEPA air purifiers, activated carbon air purifiers, and ionic air purifiers work well to clean the air you breathe inside your home.
Use Car Air Purifiers
The average U.S. commuter spends between 30 minutes to an hour driving to work. Most of this driving occurs on busy interstates and highways, where high levels of carbon monoxide persist throughout the day. The best vehicle air purifiers are those equipped with HEPA filters that can filter out most particulate matter as well as the COVID-19 virus.
Wear an N95 Mask When Outdoors
N95 masks provide the best protection against viruses, bacteria, and particulate matter. Offering a protective factor of five, N95 masks filter out 95 percent of air pollution particles.
Seek Mental Health Treatment at FHE
Although taking precautions to improve the quality of the air you breathe can significantly decrease possible brain inflammation, any mental health problem could have other underlying factors, too, such as genetics, substance abuse, or unresolved emotional issues. If you’re struggling with a mental health issue and want to feel better, contact FHE today. Our team of medical professionals can help you get to the root of the problem and address what is really going on.