Beijing time on December 31st, Beijing time, we breathe the air may be affecting our behavior, and scientists are only just beginning to understand the mechanism. In the future, police and crime prevention departments in cities may begin to focus on air pollution levels and deploy resources to the most polluted areas one day. It sounds like a sci-fi movie plot, but recent research suggests it could be a very effective measure.
What’s the reason? New research suggests that air pollution is linked to lower judgment, mental health problems, declining academic performance and (most worryingly) an increase in crime.
These findings are all the more worrying given that more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban settings and that more and more people are moving in congested areas. More alarmingly, the World Health Organization claims that nine out of ten people regularly inhale dangerous levels of polluted air. It is estimated that 7 million people die from air pollution worldwide every year, but can we add in the number of murders caused by air pollution?
In 2011, Sefi Roth, a scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science, looked at the effects of air pollution. He is well aware of the negative effects of air pollution on health, hospitalization and mortality, but on the other hand, our lives may also be affected by other adverse effects.
Sefi Ross first conducted a study to see if air pollution has an effect on cognitive ability. His team looked at students who took the test on different dates and measured the extent of air pollution on those dates. All other variables remain the same: students with similar levels of education take the exam in the same place, with different dates.
It turns out that the average difference in students’ exam results is striking. The most polluted days were associated with the worst test scores. On the best days of air quality, students perform better.
“On more polluted days, we can see a significant decline in (grades),” Ross said. “
To determine the long-term effects of air pollution, Ross followed the students’ development after 8 to 10 years. Students who perform the worst on the most polluted days are more likely to go to lower-ranked universities and earn less because exams are important for future education. “So even the short-term effects of air pollution, if it occurs at a critical stage of life, will undoubtedly have long-term effects,” Ross said. In 2016, another study supported Ross’s initial finding that pollution leads to lower productivity.
These findings have led to Ross’s latest research project. In a 2018 study, his team analysed two years of crime data from more than 600 constituencies in London and found that on the most polluted days, more petty crime was occurring in both rich and poor areas.
While we should be wary of such conclusions, the study authors do see some evidence of a causal relationship between the two. Also in this study, the researchers compared the levels of pollution in specific areas at different times. After all, a cloud of polluted air can move in the wind, randomly bringing pollution to different parts of the city, including rich and poor areas. “We’re just tracking this cloud every day to see what happens in the area when it comes to it … it’s a crime,” Ross explains. We find that wherever it goes, the crime rate rises. “
Importantly, even moderate pollution can have an impact. “We found that the huge impact on crime is far below current regulatory standards,” Ross said. In other words, even what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers to be “good” air quality levels is closely related to higher crime rates.
While Ross’s data do not find that air pollution has a significant impact on more serious murder and rape crimes, another 2018 study suggests a possible link between the two. The study, led by Jackson Lu, an assistant professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, looked at nine years of data on more than 9,000 cities, covering almost all of the U.S. population. The report found that “air pollution indicates six types of crime”, including manslaughter, rape, robbery, car theft and assault. The most polluted cities also have the highest crime rates. This is another correlation study that takes into account factors such as population, employment level, age and gender, while air pollution remains the main predictor of rising crime rates.
Further evidence came from a study of 682 teenagers’ “violations” of the act, including deception, truancy, theft, destruction of public property and substance abuse. Diana Younan of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and colleagues studied the cumulative effects of pollutants exposed to PM2.5, tiny particles 30 times smaller than the width of human hair, over a 12-year period. Similarly, in heavily polluted areas, these bad behaviors are much more likely to occur.
To show that this link cannot be explained simply by socioeconomic status, Yunan’s team also took into account the parents’ education, poverty, the quality of life of their neighbors, and many other factors to compare the effects of particulates on crime with other known effects.
Diana Yunan says her findings are particularly worrying because a person’s behaviour as a teenager is a strong predictor of their behavior as an adult. People who have bad behavior are more likely to perform worse at school, experience unemployment as they move into society, and are more likely to abuse drugs. The study also means that early intervention should be a priority.
There are many potential mechanisms to explain how air pollution affects our ethics. For example, Professor Lu Guannan’s research has shown that only negative associations caused by pollution can affect our psychology.
Typically, researchers were unable to expose participants to pollution, so they took the most reasonable (and ethical) steps possible. They showed participants in the United States and India photos of a city with the most polluted conditions, allowing them to imagine where they lived. “We gave them a psychological experience of the effects of pollution, ” Explains Professor Lu. Then let them imagine what it’s like to live in this city, what their life would be like in that environment, and let them experience air pollution psychologically, rather than a clean environment. “
Professor Lu found that participants’ anxiety increased while becoming more “self-conscious”, both of which increased aggressive and irresponsible behaviour. “We all know that as a self-protection mechanism, when we are anxious, we are more likely to hit someone else in the face when we are calm, ” says Professor Lu. ” “
In a further experiment, the team found that participants in a “polluted” environment were more likely to cheat on several tasks and overestimate their performance in order to gain rewards.
This study is just the beginning, and in addition to increasing anxiety and self-care, there may be many other reasons (including physiological changes in the brain) that affect our psychology. For example, when you breathe contaminated air, it affects the amount of oxygen in your body at a particular time, which in turn reduces the amount of “good air” entering your brain. Contaminated air can also irritate the nose and throat, causing headaches, all of which can lower our level of attention.
It is clear that exposure to a variety of contaminants can cause inflammation in the brain, damaging brain structures and neural connections. “So what could happen is that these air pollutants damage the frontal lobe,” said Diana Yunan. “The frontal lobe is a very important area for controlling our mental impulses, executive function, and self-control.
In addition to increasing crime rates, air pollution can also lead to a serious decline in mental health. A March 2019 study even showed that adolescents exposed to toxic, polluted air are more likely to develop symptoms of mental disorders, such as hallucinations or paranoia. Joanne Newbury, the study’s first author from King’s College London, said she could not say whether her findings revealed a clear causal link, but that the findings were consistent with other studies that showed a link between air pollution and mental health. “This does provide more evidence of the link between air pollution and physical health, and air pollution and dementia,” she said. “
Researchers in the field say we now need to be more aware of the effects of air pollution and the health problems associated with it. “We need more research to prove that the same thing exists in other people and age groups, ” says Diana Yunan.
Fortunately, we can control how much time we spend exposed to air pollution every day. We can proactively look at the air quality of a given day to see which days are the most dangerous and which are the safest. “If it’s dangerous, I wouldn’t advise you to go out for a run or work indoors, ” says Diana Yunan.
While many countries are waiting for stricter legislation or government intervention to curb pollution, some have taken positive measures. In California, for example, regulations have reduced air pollution and, interestingly, crime rates have fallen. But Diane Yunan stressed that we don’t know if it’s a coincidence. Meanwhile, from 8 April 2019, London will introduce a new “ultra-low emission zone” with stricter emissions standards, with a charge of 12.5 pounds for “most models” on top of the current congestion charge of ?11.50 a day. Green buses are also being rolled out under the initiative to clean up the air for London.
“Many countries are doing a good job of reducing pollution, but we should do more,” Ross said. When we think about what we want to buy and how to get to our destination, we all affect the environment. We need to be more aware of this and make more informed decisions. “
Ross believes that increasing air pollution is something we can control and solve, and he is hopeful about it. But until then, we need to make people more aware of the importance of these issues. If we all start paying attention to air pollution levels and start to get into the habit of avoiding certain activities, such as outdoor exercise and commuting, on the most polluting days, then our bodies, brains and behaviors will all benefit. (Any day)