SALT LAKE CITY — An on-going study at the University of Utah looks into how pollutant particles in the air affects mental health in Utah.
Amanda Bakian, an assistant professor of Psychiatry at the U, said she’s looked at multiple forms of data that shows there’s definitely an impact from either air pollutants, hypoxia and other mechanisms.
“If you look at what’s happening with our air quality on an annual basis, on average we’re actually pretty good compared to places like Los Angeles,” said Bakian.
What makes Utah different though, Bakian said is we experience high levels of exposure to potent pollutant in a short period of time — or what they call “peak events.”
“Wintertime we get air inversion events and summer we get wildfire events, not chronic exposure but short term exposure,” said Bakian.
The mountains push the air into a certain pocket, causing air pollution to build up each day.
University of Utah Professor of Psychiatry Scott Langenecker, who’s studied depression for 20 years, said air pollution is considered an irritant to the body.
Langenecker and Bakian are looking into how the body reacts to inhaling that irritant—what they’re finding is it can lead to inflammation on the brain.
“If we think of inflammation as the body’s response to a threat, the body is responding, the same way people respond typically when they get the flu,” said Langenecker. “They tend to feel a little bit less energy, tend to feel like they want to stay inside, maybe get a little bit dehydrated.”
Living in high elevations, Utahns are already living in a mildly hypoxic state — meaning our oxygen supply is already limited.
That too can cause inflammation the brain, especially when you pair that with some types of particulates in the air.
“It can be an acute risk factor,” said Langenecker. “For folks who experience depression or bipolar disorder, this system can trigger the particular disorder that they are experiencing and they might actually go from feeling mostly sad to really sad.”
Bakian and Langenecker are still ironing out the details with this ongoing research project, but said people should know bad air days impact them more than they might think.
“Pull back on your time spent outside and the type of exercise, especially if you’re in one of the more vulnerable groups, older or younger, in our population,” said Bakian.