A disturbing report from scientists at the University of Utah suggests a link between air pollution and suicide rates.
This isn’t the first time research has linked air pollution and mental health. This latest study comes three years after an investigation at Ohio State University found a connection between smog and depression.
In 2010, Taiwanese researchers drew links between air pollution, asthma symptoms, and suicides among Taiwanese youth.
With the latest research out of Utah added to the pile, these types of findings are becoming more and more difficult to ignore. The University of Utah study explored smog in Salt Lake County. They investigated the timing of 1,500 suicides in the area and found that “the odds of committing suicide in the county spiked 20 percent following three days of high nitrogen dioxide pollution — which is produced when fossil fuels are burned and after fertilizer is applied to fields.”
High levels of soot were correlated with a less dramatic but still noticeable five percent spike in suicide rates.
If these findings leave you scratching your head, you’re not alone. Why would the air we breathe trigger an inclination for suicide? The Taiwanese researchers suggested that perhaps air pollution provokes flare-ups in respiratory problems, and that vulnerable populations (such as those who suffer from asthma) might be “pushed over the edge” (Reuters‘ rather unfortunate choice of words, not mine) by a sudden sharp worsening of their condition.
Reports like these spur discussions on two fronts: one is that we should make an effort to screen people with chronic physical conditions such as asthma for mental health concerns. One person advocating this approach is Dr. Wayne Katon, a psychiatrist at the University of Washington in Seattle who weighed in on the Taiwanese research.
The second is that we should take air pollution very, very seriously. According to the United Nations, air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. In 2012, air pollution was responsible for the deaths of an estimated seven million people. That’s one out of eight total global deaths, and that astonishing figure is more than double previous estimates.
Grist.org is a website with the tagline: “A beacon in the smog.” They jumped on the University of Utah research and were quick to point out an unsettling fact: the chair of Utah’s air quality board is also an executive at a Salt Lake Valley copper mine that is charged with being the area’s biggest air polluter.
The University of Utah research has yet to be formally published. We’ll be eager to see whether their findings receive the attention deserved.