Probe into pollution’s suicide link

Scientists in America have carried out a series of studies that appear to link high levels of pollution to rocketing suicide rates, brain cancer and even child abuse.

Lead author of the studies, Dr Richard Weisler, a psychiatrist from the University of North Carolina, believes neurotoxin pollutants released by factories are increasing the chance of neighbouring residents taking their own lives.

The team’s first study looked at suicide rates and in Salisbury, NC, between 1994 and 2004 where residents suffered chronic low-level exposure to hydrogen sulphide and other chemicals released by nearby asphalt and petrol remediation sites.

The rate of suicides over that period stood at 38.4 per 100,000 individuals, roughly triple the average for the state.

For The second study, the results of which were recently presented to the US Psychiatric and Mental Health Congress, the team headed for the rural Haywood County where they believe they found links between chemical processes used at a paper mill and elevated suicide rates, this time around double the state average.

The scientific team’s hypothesis was that a process know as bleach filtrate recycling, ironically introduced to reduce the mill’s environmental impact by removing chlorine and other toxins from waste discharged into the neighbouring river, was actually releasing airborne toxins that were affecting the brain chemistry of the locals.

Dr Weisler told edie his team was now looking at a third site, and a different industry.

He dismissed the conclusion that some might jump to that those living near industrial sites were likely to be from deprived backgrounds and the high suicide rates could be explained away by socio-economic factors.

“In the first study the two neighbourhoods were primarily middle class to upper middle class in nature.

“Two of [the suicides] were in accountants and one was a lawyer.

“Another suicide was in a hospital worker and the other two were business managers.

“None of the residents were impoverished in any way.

“In these same groups we also identified a six fold increase risk in primary brain cancers.

“In the second study we looked at a much larger population [about 55,000] because the industrial emissions were orders of magnitude greater.

“The county unemployment rate dropped from about 5.8% prior to the suicide increase to about 5.1% during the period with increased suicides.

“The area population did not change in an adverse way during the period of the increased suicides and property values rose.

“The same county ranked 46th out of 100 NC counties in their suicide rate from 1979 to 1996 prior to the full switch to [bleach filtrate recycling].

“From 1999 to 2002 the same county was ranked third out of 100 NC counties with regard to suicide rate.”

He told edie the team’s hypothesis is that industrial air pollution negatively affects quality of life and mood states and that psychological resilience may also be compromised.

“Anxiety problems and substance abuse rates may also be impacted,” he said.

“The net impact of significant air pollution on the mental health of nearby residents and workers clearly needs further exploration.

“The potential mental health and social concerns of increased rates of suicide and child abuse/neglect appear to further increase the already significant health/social costs and quality of life impacts of industrial pollution.

“We believe in using a precautionary approach so that reducing hazardous chemical exposures become desirable goals, while the possible links of industrial pollution with adverse mental health and other health outcomes are studied.”

By Sam Bond

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