The trouble with temperature

For the first time, mental health has been included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development agenda in Goal 3 — good health and wellbeing. Research published by PLOS One on March 20 poses a challenge to this goal as findings suggest that higher temperatures decrease the quality of our mental health. The average global temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, most drastically in the last 40 years. 

Researchers Mengyao Li, Susana Ferreria, and Travis Smith examined data between 1993 and 2010 on temperature and on self-reported mental health obtained from a state based health survey system under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Cooler days were found to reduce the probability of reporting bad mental health days whereas hotter days, mostly after ten consecutive days, increased this probability. The probability of frequent mental distress (more than 14 days of bad mental health for the past month) was even higher during these hotter days. 

Three years prior to these findings, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that exposure to air pollution was also related to poor mental health. Long-term exposure to particulate matter (PM 2.5) was associated with depression and anxiety, and short-term exposure to PM 2.5 was associated with suicide. PM 2.5 are fine inhalable particles that can be emitted directly from sources, such as construction sites and unpaved roads, or through complex chemical reactions of pollutants emitted from power plants and automobiles. 

The release of new research on temperature and mental health is a concerning addition to the psychological health effects humans could face from air pollution. Understanding these implications, Li and the other researchers suggested future studies examine how community-level factors impact the mental effects of climate change. 

“I think it’s necessary to know how community-level factors like neighborhood environment, social cohesion, and also individual adaptation actions like use of air conditioning or migration, whether those things would help mitigate the effect of temperature on individual mental health,” Li said. 

At local levels, air pollution is often worse in lower income areas, where industrial facilities or highways serve as point sources, increasing exposure. Speaking on both temperature and air pollution, Li said, “The two factors combined together would pose extra pressure on people that have more exposure in those communities.”

As poorer and less developed communities will ultimately bear the mental burdens of increased air pollution combined with hotter days, it is clear that climate change is not the great equalizer. This health disparity will grow as increased temperatures will only exacerbate the mental health decline of exposed communities. 

At a local level, air pollution varies throughout the District of Columbia and is generally higher in the Seventh and Eight Wards which are historically low-income and often minority neighborhoods. This inequality is left unaddressed because the Environmental Protection Agency aggregates air quality data from their six high-cost monitoring stations, labeling the District with the same pollution levels despite drastic differences between communities.

Fresh Air D.C., a student-run and community focused research project about air quality at George Washington University, seeks to create the first and only community level network of low-cost air quality monitors. These monitors would serve to fill the gaps in pollution level data throughout the District’s wards. Aitana Mendiguren, a student working on community outreach for the project, said, “We mainly want to educate and empower community members of Wards seven and eight who are exposed to higher local levels of air pollution. Using our sensors they will be able to actually monitor their community-levels with real data.”

While Fresh Air D.C. stresses the physical health effects of air pollution, the recently discovered associations between mental health and global warming only further support the necessity for their efforts. “People living in these wards need the hands-on tools to understand how their health is a risk,” Mediguren said. 

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