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Preliminary Study Links Air Pollution and Suicide

Ryan Houston
Flickr Creative Commons

A new study from the University of Utah suggests yet another link between pollution and health hazards: a correlation between dirty air and suicide that’s spurring even more questions.

Amanda Bakian, an assistant professor of psychiatry, says preliminary findings show more people commit suicide when nitrogen dioxide is elevated. And when is fine-particle pollution is elevated. But she notes the correlation is puzzling because the suicide-pollution link is strongest in the seasons when pollution is generally not that high, spring and fall.

“We believe,” says Bakian, “that air pollution may be interacting with some of these other risk factors for suicide, to increase one’s susceptibility to the affects of air pollution.”

The researcher used data from the state Medical Examiner’s office and the Environmental Protection Agency.  She says the study is not yet peer-reviewed and it does not prove that pollution causes peoples to take their own lives. But she points out her study’s findings echo Asian research.

“Our findings are consistent with what they found,” she says. “And we find this to be very interesting because this means this relationship extends beyond differences in meteorological variables, geographical variables and cultural factors, which can influence suicide.”

She plans more research on links between air pollution on other risk factors that might be in play, like socioeconomic status, genetics, physical conditions and psychiatric problems.

The EPA does regulate nitrogen oxides, but an agency web page says not one area of the country is in violation of the national standard, and that includes Utah. Bo Call, who oversees pollution monitoring at the Division of Air Quality, says there has never been a violation of the federal standard for nitrogen dioxide in Utah since records started being kept in the mid-1970’s.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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