Mental health in a toxic world

Exploring insights on safer chemistry and transparency for a healthier future.

by Colleen McLoughlin

October 10 marks World Mental Health Day, and 2023’s theme was “Mental Health as a Universal Human Right”. The World Health Organization (WHO) has affirmed that every individual is entitled to the highest attainable standard of mental wellbeing. Not only does this include access to treatment when faced with mental health issues, but living in conditions that protect and promote psychological wellness.

The accessibility of such rights varies by location, but growing knowledge is shedding light on the specific circumstances and conditions that influence mental health.

Mental health and air pollution

Recent advancements in research have expanded our understanding of the far-reaching health implications of environmental pollution — extending beyond physical wellbeing to mental health.

Numerous studies are now pointing to the potential psychological impacts of various types of pollution, with a notable focus on air pollution. For instance, a study in London monitored the mental health status of over 1,500 adults from more than 1,000 households over a span of five years. The study identified significant correlations between the prevalence of common mental health issues and elevated levels of specific air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. While smaller particular matter (PM2.5) was linked to common mental disorders and poor physical symptoms, larger particulate matter (PM10) was linked to psychotic symptoms. Although the study doesn’t establish causality and multiple confounding variables were present, the strength of the associations led the authors to propose that mitigating traffic-related air pollution could yield substantial mental health benefits.

Similarly, a study from Korea corroborated these findings, establishing a connection between air pollution and mental health disorders. These studies collectively highlight the necessity of addressing environmental factors as part of a comprehensive approach to mental health.

Water, environmental pollution, and mental health

The scope of environmental factors impacting mental health is not limited to air pollution. A global review of studies conducted in 2009 focused on the mental health effects of arsenic contamination in underground water — a widespread issue in several regions. The review found compelling evidence linking arsenic exposure to deteriorated mental health.

A more comprehensive review from 2015 explored a range of environmental pollutants and their potential neurodevelopmental and mental health effects. This included air pollution, pollen, noise, anthropogenic electromagnetic fields (from Wi-Fi networks and mobile/cell phones), heavy metals, and endocrine disruptors like phthalates and pesticides. The authors presented plausible mechanisms for how these environmental factors might influence mental health, drawing evidence from existing research.

Furthermore, the review acknowledged a robust correlation between urban living and mental health disorders. While this could partially be attributed to better diagnostic services in urban areas, the evidence suggests that city living itself may be a contributing factor to mental health problems, possibly due (at least in part) to elevated levels of pollution.

These collective findings underscore the importance of considering a wide range of environmental variables when assessing factors that contribute to mental health outcomes.

The influence of perception and belief

The psychological ramifications of perceived environmental risks also warrant attention. For example, a study conducted in Michigan investigated the relationship between the perceived quality of tap water during a water safety scare and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study found that individuals who perceived their tap water to be of poor quality experienced heightened mental health issues, irrespective of the actual water quality.

In the current digital age, the rapid dissemination of information, including misinformation and conspiracy theories via social media, has further complicated the landscape. Claims or speculations about toxic chemicals in products from certain companies can easily circulate, potentially impacting the mental health of those who consider themselves at risk.

This suggests that perceptions and beliefs about environmental contamination can also be influential drivers of mental health outcomes. It underscores the need for accurate information dissemination, public awareness initiatives, and environmental mitigation measures as strategies for safeguarding mental health.

Taking action to protect mental health

Transparency is a crucial element for companies aiming to protect mental health effectively. Transparency can counter claims and mitigate public concerns. Here are some actionable strategies:

  • Utilize comprehensive tools: Platforms like Enhesa’s ToxPlanet offer in-depth chemical and toxicological information, along with regulatory submissions, to help you understand the safety profile of the chemicals used in your products.
  • Enhance toxicological screening: Tools such as SciveraLENS can refine your toxicological screening processes. This can prevent potential reputational damage and reassure customers about product safety.
  • Seek safer alternatives: Proactively substituting toxic chemicals with safer alternatives, even before they are banned, can preempt regulation and mitigate future costs. Studies confirm that the reduction of banned substances in products eventually leads to reduced levels in individuals, thus showing that negative health impacts can be reversible.

Publish information: Once you acquire comprehensive data on the chemicals in your products, publishing this information can preempt misinformation. Thoughtful data selection for environmental health and safety (EHS) disclosures — as well as for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting — can contribute to a reputation for responsible chemical usage.

Taking a proactive stance to protecting mental health

Mental health has traditionally been overshadowed by physical health in research and policy. Despite extensive data on the physical health effects of chemicals, studies on their psychological effects have lagged. As evidence and regulatory scrutiny grow, a proactive approach in this area could provide substantial benefits.

Do you have ideas or questions about how we can better protect mental health through chemical safety and transparency? We’d love to have you involved in the conversation. Reach out to us today to contribute to this important dialogue and join us in reaffirming the importance of Mental Health as a Universal Human Right.

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We’d love to hear your thoughts on how organizations can do their part to support employees’ mental health and reaffirm that mental health is a universal human right.

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