Preliminary Study Links Air Pollution and Suicide

Apr 7, 2014

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death nationwide, and the 8th leading cause of death in Utah. A new University of Utah study finds a link between suicide and elevated pollution levels in spring and fall.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death nationwide, and the 8th leading cause of death in Utah. A new University of Utah study finds a link between suicide and elevated pollution levels in spring and fall.
Credit 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  She says the study is not yet peer-reviewed and it does not prove that pollution causes peoples to take their own lives.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.