Environmental Contaminants Can Impact How Happy We Are, According to New Research

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) can have a variety of health impacts on people, including heart and respiratory issues, but a new study finds it doesn’t just stop with the body. It can also impact our happiness.

Researchers from Osaka University recently examined how environmental chemicals, including PM2.5, impact our happy life expectancy, or the amount of time in our lives when we experience subjective emotional wellbeing. In the same study, the team also looked at how this metric is impacted by psychological distress and a cancer diagnosis. According to the findings, published in the journal Environmental Research, environmental chemicals take away more of a person’s happiness than living with cancer does.

Smoke and pollutants loom over land and river
PHOTO: PIXABAY / Alzenir Ferreira de Souza

Study co-author Shuhei Nomura says, “The results were intriguing. We found that emotional happiness did not decrease significantly in those with cancer, nor was there any significant association between emotional happiness and cancer type, history, or stage.”

However, that wasn’t the case with environmental chemicals, which were found to dampen our happiness lifespan. To determine how the two were linked, the team calculated the happy life expectancy of nearly 6,000 Japanese people – 5,000 of whom were drawn from the general population and 850 of whom had cancer – by using surveys to look at both loss of happiness and increased mortality risk associated with the studied chemicals: PM2.5, radon, and arsenic.

This is a formula used more than a decade ago following one of Japan’s deadliest natural disasters.

Lead author Michio Murakami says, “We previously used the [loss of happy life expectancy] indicator to evaluate psychological distress and cancer risk associated with radiation exposure after the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station accident, among other situations. However, this tool has not been used to assess the effects of cancer or exposure to environmental carcinogens on happiness.”

Smoke stacks produce industrial pollution

They found that while there was not a significant difference in emotional happiness in those with cancer, there were losses of happy life expectancy associated with the three chemicals studied: 0.0064 years for radon, 0.0026 years for arsenic, and 0.00086 years for fine particulate matter. Psychological distress had the biggest impact, though, taking away about a year of this happiness lifespan.

The team says the findings suggest that environmental chemicals can impact wellbeing, and this should inform environmental policies tackling these chemicals.

Murakami adds, “Our findings suggest that exposure to carcinogens and psychological distress significantly decrease lifetime happiness.”

Man runs in mask due to environmental pollution

Recent research from the U.S. National Institutes of Health has also found that particulate air pollution is linked with breast cancer risk. You can read more about that here.

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