Could North Carolina's Coal Emissions Account for High Suicide Rate?

| by Sarah Fruchtnicht
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The suicide rate in North Carolina is higher than the national average, and a new study linking suicide to environmental pollution aims to uncover whether coal plants could be a contributing factor.

Research from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, led by Dr. John G. Spangler, studied census data, mortality rates, and air contamination in 20 North Carolina counties.

"The presence of a coal-fired electricity plant correlated with airborne levels of nickel, mercury, lead, chromium, cadmium, beryllium and arsenic," Spangler said.

Taking into account how air pollution from coal plants can drive people to suicide, the study looked at worsening health, affects of the nervous system or generally lowered life satisfaction due to coal pollution. 

The results, published in the Journal of Mood Disorders, found that for each coal plant in the county, the number of yearly suicides rose by 1.96 people for every 100,000 people.

"This study raises interesting questions about suicide rates in counties where coal-fired electrical plants operate and suggests that the quality of air can affect people suffering from different mood disorders," Spangler said in a press release.

Given the state’s population, the study found 3,220 suicides a year to be associated with coal-fired electricity plants.

Spangler admitted that the study has several limitations. It only looked at county-level characteristics, didn’t have all possible socioeconomic data on each county and could not control for factors in individual residents.

“Further research is needed to understand what factors related to coal burning actually are at play and suggest that tighter regulation of coal-fired power plant emissions might cut down on county suicide rates in North Carolina,” Spangler added.

Spangler previously studied environmental factors in diabetes, chronic liver disease, cancer, and infant mortality.

Sources: Grist, ScienceDaily