Environmental exposures and health behavior in association with mental health: a study design

Pauline Hautekiet, Tim S. Nawrot, Stefaan Demarest, Johan Van der Heyden, Ilse Van Overmeire, Eva M. De Clercq & Nelly D. Saenen

Archives of Public Health Volume 78, Article number: 105 (2020)



Air pollution, green space and smoking are known to affect human health. However, less is known about their underlying biological mechanisms. One of these mechanisms could be biological aging. In this study, we explore the mediation of biomarkers of exposure and biological aging to explain the associations between environmental exposures, health behavior and mental health.


The study population of this cross-sectional study (n = 1168) is a subsample of the Belgian 2018 Health Interview Survey (BHIS). Mental health indicators including psychological and severe psychological distress, life satisfaction, vitality, eating disorders, suicidal ideation, subjective health and depressive and anxiety disorders, demographics and health behavior such as smoking are derived from the BHIS. Urine and blood samples are collected to measure respectively the biomarkers of exposure (urinary black carbon (BC) and (hydroxy)cotinine) and the biomarkers of biological aging (mitochondrial DNA content (mtDNAc) and telomere length (TL)). Recent and chronic exposure (μg/m3) to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), particulate matter ≤2.5 μm (PM2.5) and ≤ 10 μm (PM10) and BC at the participants’ residence are modelled using a high resolution spatial temporal interpolation model. Residential green space is defined in buffers of different size (50 m – 5000 m) using land cover data in ArcGIS 10 software. For the statistical analysis multivariate linear and logistic regressions as well as mediation analyses are used taking into account a priori selected covariates and confounders.


As this study combined data of BHIS and laboratory analyses, not all data is available for all participants. Therefore, data analyses will be conducted on different subsets. Data on air pollution and green space exposure is available for all BHIS participants. Questions on smoking and mental health were answered by respectively 7829 and 7213 BHIS participants. For biomarker assessment, (hydroxy) cotinine, urinary BC and the biomarkers of biological aging are measured for respectively 1130, 1120 and 985 participants.


By use of personal markers of air pollution and smoking, as well as biological aging, we will gain knowledge about the association between environmental exposures, health behavior, and the mental health status. The results of the study can provide insights on the health of the Belgian population, making it a nationwide interesting study.

Read the full article in Archives of Public Health.

Environmental exposures and health behavior in association with mental health: a study design