New research indicates that suicides might be linked to air pollution. The study focused specifically on Utah, which is part of what is known as the western “suicide belt”. In the Unites States, the 10th leading cause of death is suicide, which many experts now believe is connected directly to poor air quality.
Similar studies have been conducted in Canada, South Korea, and Taiwan where the same conclusion was reached. As stated by Amanda Bakian, University of Utah epidemiologist and leader of the study, overall the findings indicate that suicide can be prevented and the risk of air pollution modified.
Although mental illness is a huge factor, there are others. However, in addition to internal there are external factors to consider. For instance, the number of completed and attempted suicides occurs in the spring. Physical inflammation has also been proven to be a trigger. With inflammation, the body’s immune system works overtime, releasing various compounds such as quinolinic acid already connected to thoughts of suicide.
Experts of the new study linked rates of suicide with particles in the air known to promote inflammation. In the BMJ Open journal, one study published in 2013 showed that as tree pollen levels in Denmark increased so did the number of suicides. However, inflammation is also caused by air pollution.
Multiple studies have been conducted around the world in recent years, each finding that an increase in air particulate matter correlated to higher rates of suicide. Bakian and her colleagues live in Salt Lake City, where inversions, which are air patterns that force pollution close to the ground, are much higher during the wintertime.
Bakian and her team worked closely with the Office of the Medical Examiner with the Utah Department of Health, collecting data on the 1,546 suicides in Salt Lake City from 2000 to 2010. The timing of each suicide was carefully studied along with levels of air pollution, to include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and both fine and coarse particulate matter.
Researchers confirmed that between two and three days following an increase of nitrogen dioxide and fine particular matter risk of suicide climbed. As explained by Bakian, fine particulates are most dangerous because they permeate thoracic airways. The study also showed that rather than suicide rates increasing during winter months, they were actually higher in the spring and fall.
Andrew Gagnon, spokesman for Health Canada, points out that this is just one study consisting of a relatively low number of people so any interpretation needs to be cautious. He also stated that the study performed by Bakian and her colleagues only showed a correlation between suicides and air pollution, not that more suicides were caused by air quality.