Groundbreaking study reveals link between psychotic episodes and pollution

psychotic episodesCC: Patrick Hendry at Unsplash

When most of us think about the health risks of pollution, our minds drift to the lungs. We already know that air pollution exacerbates asthma and shortens life expectancy. According to one new study, it also induces psychotic episodes. If you’re a city dweller, you may want to learn more about the study before panicking.

What are psychotic episodes?

Before we examine the study it’s worth learning more about what a psychotic episode is. The reality of one rarely reflects what happens in the movies. The term psychotic episode covers the following events:

  • Hallucinating, which includes hearing seeing things that aren’t there.
  • Paranoid delusions, such as a fear of being persecuted when no such thing is happening.
  • Disorganized thoughts, speech, and behavior.
  • Disordered thinking and word salad, which means jumping between subjects with no set pattern.
  • Periods of catatonia.

As you can see, the term psychotic episode describes a series of symptoms. Therefore, it’s linked to multiple diseases.

What did the study into air pollution reveal?

The study in question comes from Kings College London (KCL). It originally began looking into the link between smoking cannabis and psychotic episodes. However, one of its secondary findings was that living in areas where air pollution is high is also an influencing factor.


According to the study’s results, young people who live in areas with high pollution are twice as likely to experience a psychotic episode. The researchers excluded other possible causes, such as social deprivation, alcohol, drug use, inherited mental illness, and crime. As a result, it looks as though air pollution is the only remaining influencing factor.

Is there an alternative explanation for the link?

The researchers at KCL were fast to highlight that this doesn’t confirm an absolute link between air pollution and psychotic episodes. The study could act as a useful platform for looking into the link. It isn’t an unreasonable assumption to make, as we’re already aware of the way pollutants interact with neurofibrillary tangles, leading to Alzheimer’s Disease.

However, it’s also wise to not ignore other aspects of city living that could increase the risk of a psychotic episode. For example, people who live in urban areas are almost 10% more likely to suffer from poor sleep quality compared to those who live in rural settings. Younger people have greater sleep demands than adults, as it’s conducive to their development. If young people are sleeping less due to living in an urban setting, this could be another psychotic episode risk.

Additionally, life in cities is also more stressful and has fewer opportunities for outdoor play. Research reveals that living in an urban area presents unique types of stress. For example, commuting times, financial strains, and noise.

Until we see some in-depth research, it might not be time to panic about air pollution and psychotic episodes yet. If you do live in an urban setting, it could be a good idea to dedicate some time to escape to rural environments.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.