Air pollution exposure damages the brain, but its associations with the development of psychopathology are not fully characterized.
To assess whether air pollution exposure in childhood and adolescence is associated with greater psychopathology at 18 years of age.
Design, setting, and participants
The Environmental-Risk Longitudinal Twin Study is a population-based cohort study of 2232 children born from January 1, 1994, to December 4, 1995, across England and Wales and followed up to 18 years of age. Pollution data generation was completed on April 22, 2020; data were analyzed from April 27 to July 31, 2020.
High-resolution annualized estimates of outdoor nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter less than 2.5 μm (PM2.5) linked to home addresses at the ages of 10 and 18 years and then averaged.
Main outcomes and measures
Mental health disorder symptoms assessed through structured interview at 18 years of age and transformed through confirmatory factor analysis into continuous measures of general psychopathology (primary outcome) and internalizing, externalizing, and thought disorder symptoms (secondary outcomes) standardized to a mean (SD) of 100 (15). Hypotheses were formulated after data collection, and analyses were preregistered.
A total of 2039 participants (1070 [52.5%] female) had full data available. After adjustment for family and individual factors, each interquartile range increment increase in NOx exposure was associated with a 1.40-point increase (95% CI, 0.41-2.38; P = .005) in general psychopathology. There was no association between continuously measured PM2.5 and general psychopathology (b = 0.45; 95% CI, -0.26 to 1.11; P = .22); however, those in the highest quartile of PM2.5 exposure scored 2.04 points higher (95% CI, 0.36-3.72; P = .02) than those in the bottom 3 quartiles. Copollutant models, including both NOx and PM2.5, implicated NOx alone in these significant findings. NOx exposure was associated with all secondary outcomes, although associations were weakest for internalizing (adjusted b = 1.07; 95% CI, 0.10-2.04; P = .03), medium for externalizing (adjusted b = 1.42; 95% CI, 0.53-2.31; P = .002), and strongest for thought disorder symptoms (adjusted b = 1.54; 95% CI, 0.50-2.57; P = .004). Despite NOx concentrations being highest in neighborhoods with worse physical, social, and economic conditions, adjusting estimates for neighborhood characteristics did not change the results.
Conclusions and relevance
Youths exposed to higher levels of outdoor NOx experienced greater psychopathology at the transition to adulthood. Air pollution may be a nonspecific risk factor for the development of psychopathology.