If you live in the city—or even a slightly urban area—you can probably look to the sky and point out a cloud of smog: funneling from factories or just hanging out on the rooftops.

This is the most obvious and familiar form of air pollution… but it’s not the only one. Pollutants aren’t always visible—and that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Every single substance that we’ve introduced into the atmosphere, which has damaging effects on our Earth and those that inhabit it, is considered a pollutant. And while these effects certainly raise eyebrows and concerns, and even prompt proactivity for some, we’re still observing just how severe they are.

A new study from USC sheds light on a new effect of air pollution: an increase in teenage delinquency. This research, which will be published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found that tiny pollution particles (called particulate matter 2.5 or PM2.5) can enter the brain and cause damage to networks responsible for emotions and decision-making. A researcher from the Keck School of Medicine at USC said these findings further the notion that clean air is incredibly important—and it’s time to treat it as such.

“These tiny, toxic particles creep into your body, affecting your lungs and your heart. Studies are beginning to show exposure to various air pollutants also causes inflammation in the brain. PM2.5 is particularly harmful to developing brains because it can damage brain structure and neural networks and, as our study suggests, influence adolescent behaviors,” Younan, a preventive medicine research associate at the Keck School of Medicine, said of the team’s research.

The study conducted by these USC researchers was an extensive one: it followed 682 children (who were initially 9 years old) in Los Angeles for a total of nine years. Every several years, the parents filled out a child-behavior checklist, recording whether their kid engaged in any of 13 misbehaviors: lying, cheating, stealing, vandalizing, and so on. Meanwhile, the researchers measured daily air pollution in Southern California, using 25 air quality monitors; they then estimated PM2.5 levels outside of each participant’s home, using a mathematical model. The team noted that a good 75% of the kids breathed in a level of air pollution that exceeded federal recommendations. In fact, some of them were exposed to double the recommended amount.

Ultimately, the researchers found that bad behavior was most common in boys, African-Americans, kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and those who lived in oppressed neighborhoods with little to no greenspace. Furthermore, misconduct as related to higher levels of air pollution was worse when the children had highly-stressed parents, depressed mothers, or overall bad relationships with their parents.

“A bad parent-child relationship causes a stressful family environment, and if this goes on for too long, the teenager could be in a chronic state of stress. This could wreak havoc on the body, making teens more vulnerable to the effects of exposure to small particles,” Younan explained. “Many scientists suspect PM2.5 causes inflammation in the brain or somehow travels directly into the brain and messes with neural connections, resulting in the observed bad behaviors.” She goes on to say that individuals can and should “compensate for air pollution by having a good indoor environment and healthy family dynamics.”

This isn’t the first time Younan and her colleagues at USC have observed the harmful effects of air pollution. Over the years—in collaboration with other researchers and engineers from a number of disciplines—they’ve found that air pollution can increase obesity, aggression among teens, and the risk for dementia among older women.

We can all agree that air pollution poses a serious risk to our Earth and our wellbeing—but some don’t realize just how serious the risk is. Fortunately, studies like this one are shedding light on the severity of the matter and continuing this important conversation. Do your part in alleviating this problem: conserve energy by turning off lights and other electric appliances when they’re not in use; limit driving by carpooling, walking, or biking instead; and advocate for emission reductions from major power plants and factories.

Vuong, Z. (2017, December 13). Badly behaved teens? Air pollution could be to blame. University of Southern California. Retrieved on December 15, 2017 from http://news.usc.edu/132850/increased-air-pollution-linked-to-bad-teenage-behavior/