Mind Matters — Pollution: Air and Otherwise

Once upon a time I lived in Pittsburgh when my joke was that you had a choice of eating or breathing. When the steel mills were belching, the air was deplorable, but there was work and food on the table. When the plants would shut down, the labor force would be laid off and while money may have been stretched thin, the air was clear: we could breathe.

During those years a friend taught at an elementary school situated on a hill above one of those steel mills. Because of that location, the smokestacks of the plant were in direct line with the school. She described how horrific the air could be when the bellowing pollution blew her way. Meanwhile, a graduate student in Carnegie-Mellon’s MBA program was delighted to inform me of the work he was doing to prove that the Pittsburgh pollution was “not so bad.” He was taking air quality readings below the smokestacks rather than where children and teachers were suffering its stench. He knew full well how deceitful his data were. His report was legal if not ethical or moral. “All’s fair in business,” he smirked.

Now a study reported in Health & Place and summarized in the APA Monitor finds that there is a correlation between high levels of particulate pollution and psychological distress. Researchers cross-referenced data collected from 6,000 respondents to a national survey on stress symptoms such as hopelessness and sadness against pollution data from various locations. The correlation between pollution and mental distress held “even after controlling for physical, behavioral and socio-economic factors such as chronic health conditions and unemployment.” (APA Monitor on Psychology, February, 2018, “In Brief”)

In the Pittsburgh area in the early 1970’s, awareness of air pollution (and water too) was not to be had. Folks lived in the pollution like fish swim in water. I worked at a mental health drop-in clinic for adolescents in one steel mill and coke mill town. As I was driving to work one day, I noticed an adolescent whom I knew walking along the road. I stopped to give him a ride into town and remarked on the pollution—the sky was so thick with smog that the sun couldn’t be seen. My young passenger looked at me with astonishment—“What pollution?” he said. He had been born and raised in that town and he knew no other sky!

We do get acclimated and inured to whatever pollutes our environment until we learn how detrimental it is to both our mental and physical health.

Also, once upon a time, little awareness was given to what pollutes the work environment too—that is, sexual harassment was, like polluted air, accepted as just “the way it is.” Psychologists who study workplace harassment note that “sexual harassment is a pervasive problem with a devastating toll on employee well-being and performance.” (APA Monitor on Psychology, February, 2018) despite all the high profile stories and the Me Too movement, awareness in the workplace, according to psychologists, is slow to grow.

James Campbell Quick, PhD, says, “sexual harassment is really not about sex. It’s about power and aggression and manipulation. It’s an abuse of power problem.” Also, although the preponderance of such harassment happens to women, it also happens to men.

However, psychologist Chris Kilmartin notes that sexual harassment often occurs where a top-down power dynamic exists, where men outnumber women and are in superior positions. He suggests that “hiring more women in leadership positions and creating a civil, respectful culture for all employees can help curb the problem.”

I remember my mother telling me how supervisors would grope young women in the cigar factory where she worked. Unfortunately, not much has improved for low wage workers since the 1920’s. Women in low paying, low profile jobs still get short shrift—no Me Too movement for them!

How can this change? Just as for air and water pollution, so too for the workplace pollution of sexual harassment, public awareness and a shift in attitude is called for: “Shifts in cultural attitudes toward sexual harassment may ultimately be the most valuable tool in combating sexual harassment by creating a share sense of public responsibility and accountability.”

So it is: education and awareness are the first steps to clearing the air—both literally and figuratively—in our skies and in the workplace and in our culture as a whole.

[See the APA Monitor on Psychology, February, 2018:
“What It Really Takes to Stop Sexual Harassment,” by Brendan L. Smith; and
“Toxic Pollution,” in “In Brief,” compiled by Lea Winerman.]