By Kevin Deutsch
A new study involving Bronx kids found that elevated exposure to stress and air pollution had negative effects on childrens’ mental health, researchers said.
The subjects showed heightened symptoms of attention and thought problems, according to the researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia Psychiatry.
The study is one of the first to examine the combined effects of air pollution and early life stress on school-age children, and appeared this month in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
“Air pollutants are common in our environment, particularly in cities, and given socioeconomic inequities and environmental injustice, children growing up in disadvantaged circumstances are more likely to experience both life stress and exposure to neurotoxic chemicals,” said senior author Dr. Amy Margolis, assistant professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia Psychiatry.
The Bronx is New York City’s most polluted borough, with child asthma death rates three times higher than the rest of the nation, research shows. It is also home to some of the poorest neighborhoods in America.
Air pollution has negative effects on physical health, the Columbia researchers said, and recent work has begun to also show negative effects on mental health. Life stress, too, is one of the best-known contributors to mental health problems.
To gather data, researchers said they studied expecting mothers in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx, including many participants who self-identified as African American or Dominican.
The mothers wore an air monitoring backpack during the third trimester of pregnancy to measure exposure to air pollutants in their daily lives. When their children were five years old, the mothers reported on stress in their lives, including “neighborhood quality, material hardship, intimate partner violence, perceived stress, lack of social support, and general distress levels.”
Mothers then reported on their child’s psychiatric symptoms at ages five, seven, nine and 11.
“The combined effect of air pollution and early life stress was seen across several measures of thought and attention problems/ADHD at age 11. (Thought problems included obsessive thoughts and behaviors or thoughts that others find strange),” the study said.
The researchers said increased exposure to pollution and early life stress may serve as a “double hit” on shared biological pathways connected to attention and thought problems.