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Air pollution increases risk of mental illness among UK children, study reveals

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Children living in big cities and near busy roads are more likely to develop a mental health disorder in adulthood, a major study has revealed.

The research, published by King’s College London, is among the first to explore the link between air pollution and brain health from a young age.

The study followed 2,000 sets of twins over a 25-year period, during which time participants were asked to complete regular physical and mental health evaluations and provided information about the larger communities in which they live.

Over the course of the study, the twins’ exposure to air pollutants – such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – was also recorded.

By age 18, it was found that more than one in five (22 per cent) sets of twins were exposed to air pollutants that exceeded World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, while over eight in 10 (84 per cent) were exposed to high levels of air pollution.

It was also found, however, that those exposed to greater levels of pollution were more at risk of developing a mental health disorder, such as alcohol dependence, ADHD, and generalised anxiety disorder.

Commenting on the paper, Dr Helen Fisher, the study’s co-author and Principal Investigator from King’s IoPPN, said: “This study has demonstrated that children growing up in our biggest cities face a greater risk of mental illness due to higher levels of traffic.

“While we might like to think of our towns and cities as green and open spaces, it’s clear that there is a hidden danger that many will not have even considered.”

Co-author Aaron Reuben added: “We have confirmed the identification of what is essentially a novel risk factor for most major forms of mental illness, one that is modifiable and that we can intervene on at the level of whole communities, cities, and or even countries.”

The latest figures suggest that around one in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, with the most common illnesses being anxiety and depression.