The year 2020, a Year of the Rat, has come. The biggest environmental concern perceived by the Korean people over the past year was fine dust. According a survey by the Asian Center for Environment & Health, 59 percent of the respondents picked fine dust as the biggest environmental issue. The government also labeled fine dust as the biggest social disaster, and launched the presidential National Climate and Environment Council, as it is scrambling to find measures to address the issue. Likewise, every one of us knows the risk of fine dust and we are collectively agonizing to resolve the fine dust problem, but we have one important fact that we have thus far not recognized: Fine dust damages the invisible heart and mind of people, which is invisible just like fine dust itself.
The British science journal “Reviews of Environmental Health” published a study result that investigated the relations between harmful air including fine dust and depression and suicide last year. The study hypothesized that air pollution is linked with mental health, to find that there were statistically very significant relations. Investigating trends for 40 years from 1977 to 2017 in 16 countries including China, the U.S., Germany, the U.K. and India, the study result showed that exposure to PM 2.5 level of ultrafine dust, which increased by 10μg or higher per sq. meters, for more than one year elevated the risk of depression by 10 percent.
There were studies that also showed similar results in Korea. A study conducted of more than 260,000 people by Seoul National University Hospital from 2002 to 2013 suggested that the suicide risk in areas that are exposed the most to fine dust was about four times that in the areas that are exposed the least. In particular, children and senior citizens who have a weak immune system and patients with hypertension and diabetes should be all the more wary of fine dust levels. According to a study that analyzed the relations between fine dust and diabetes and high blood pressure, generally an every 100μg increase per sq. meters in fine dust levels elevates the risk of depression by 1.44 times, but it increases the risk as much as 1.83 times among people with diabetes and hypertension.
Since we only learned that fine dust can attack our mental health recently, we still do not know the exact cause. Experts in the science and medical communities only speculate that fine dust that entered the body penetrate into blood vessels and reach the brain to cause problems. In the process of this, fine dust is known to cause inflammation in the brain, damage to the nerve cells, and suppression of secretion of the serotonin hormone. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that enables the people to control anger in the brain, and stabilize our emotion, and lack of this hormone increases the risk of depression.
The book “Now Let’s Take Care of Our Body” by psychiatrist Moon Yo-han includes a line reading that the most efficient way to stabilize our mind is to take care of our body. This reminds me of the slogan “Sound Body, Sound Mind,” which we would hear from the teacher when we were young. After all, we have to take care of our body in order to keep our mental health, while we naturally have to address and resolve the fine dust issue in order take care of our body. We also need to establish the culture wherein people proactively seek to get treatment rather than feeling ashamed when we suffer mentally. It is hoped that every one of us looks into the issue of fine dust around us, and steps up efforts to solve this problem in order to keep our body and mind sound and healthy.