John Upton writes at Pacific Standard:
Saying “it’s so smoggy I could kill myself” may seem as flippant as uttering “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”
But it’s not.
Four years ago, Asian researchers reported links between air pollution and suicide rates in South Korea; and between air pollution, asthma, and suicides in Taiwan. Now, University of Utah scientists say they have uncovered similar links in pollution-prone Salt Lake County.
Delegates who have gathered in Los Angeles for the American Association of Suicidology’s annual get-together will hear this evening about the unpublished research, which compared the timing of 1,500 suicides in the Beehive State with air quality data.
Suicide can be difficult to talk about, but it’s America’s 10th leading cause of death. It’s the eighth-leading cause in Utah, home to some of the nation’s smoggiest cities. Earlier this year, the pollution problem prompted a 5,000-person protest outside the state’s capitol building. (Fun fact: The biggest air polluter in Salt Lake Valley is a copper mine operated by Rio Tinto—and an executive of that mine chairs Utah’s air quality board.)
“We found an association between air pollution exposure and suicide risk,” says Amanda Bakian, an assistant professor in the university’s psychiatry department who was involved with the research. “Our study wasn’t designed to test for causality. It was designed to assess whether or not there is a correlation.”
Bakian and her colleagues 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.
They also found that Utahans were five percent more likely to kill themselves following three days of breathing in air laced with high levels of fine particulate matter, also known as soot.
“To our knowledge, this is the first U.S. based study to identify a link between transient air pollution exposure and suicide risk,” the scientists wrote in an abstract for the conference. “A similar relationship may exist in U.S. populations but has yet to be examined.”
Read more here.