Exposure to ambient air pollution during childhood and subsequent risk of self-harm: a national cohort study

Pearl Mok, Sussie Antonsen, Esben Agerbo, Jørgen Brandt, Camilla Geels, Jesper Christensen, Lise Frohn, Carsten Pedersen, Roger Webb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A growing body of evidence indicates that exposure to air pollution not only impacts on physical health but is also linked with a deterioration in mental health. We conducted the first study to investigate exposure to ambient particulate matter with an aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 μm (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) during childhood and subsequent self-harm risk. The study cohort included persons born in Denmark between January 1, 1979 and December 31, 2006 (N = 1,424,670), with information on daily exposures to PM2.5 and NO2 at residence from birth to 10th birthday. Follow-up began from 10th birthday until first hospital-presenting self-harm episode, death, or December 31, 2016, whichever came first. Incidence rate ratios estimated by Poisson regression models revealed a dose relationship between increasing PM2.5 exposure and rising self-harm risk. Exposure to 17-19 μg/m3 of PM2.5 on average per day from birth to 10th birthday was associated with a 1.45 fold (95% CI 1.37-1.53) subsequently elevated self-harm risk compared with a mean daily exposure of <13 μg/m3, whilst those exposed to 19 μg/m3 or above on average per day had a 1.59 times (1.45-1.75) elevated risk. Higher mean daily exposure to NO2 during childhood was also linked with increased self-harm risk, but the dose-response relationship observed was less evident than for PM2.5. Covariate adjustment attenuated the associations, but risk remained independently elevated. Although causality cannot be assumed, these novel findings indicate a potential etiological involvement of ambient air pollution in the development of mental ill health.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)106502
Number of pages1
JournalPreventive Medicine
Publication statusPublished - 16 Sept 2021


  • Air pollution
  • Mental health
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Particulate matter
  • Self-harm


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