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Diesel fumes can make people feel just as bad as a partner’s death, study says

A new study examining the effects of a chemical released into the atmosphere by the burning of diesel fuel found that it can make people feel like their spouse just died.

“Can Clean Air Make You Happy?”, a study from researchers at the University of York in England, found a “significant and negative association” between nitrogen dioxide and overall wellbeing. The study looked at data on life satisfaction from a pair of British longitudinal surveys, then, controlling for other variables, overlaid detailed air quality records from the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.


People who were exposed to higher levels of nitrogen dioxide appeared to also be more unhappy.

“Our results suggest a significant and negative association between mean annual ambient [nitrogen dioxide] and life satisfaction, and moreover that these effects are substantive and comparable to that of many ‘big hitting’ life events,” the study’s authors wrote.

Nitrogen dioxide in the U.K. often exceed EU standards; the European Environment Agency found that the chemical was responsible for 11,940 premature deaths in 2013. London has the highest overall levels of the chemical in the U.K.; the city’s Marylebone Road recorded the highest yearly mean levels, which were more than double the EU limit.

“We concentrate on [nitrogen dioxide] in this paper as it is a significant gaseous pollutant across the U.K., emitted from road traffic and energy production processes,” the study authors wrote. “It is a precursor to particulate pollution and low-level ozone and as such highly relevant for human well-being.”

Nitrogen dioxide levels have been dropping in the U.S. for the last few decades; diesel-powered automobiles are far less common in America than they are in Europe.