Wildfires may increase suicide risk in rural areas, study says

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Monday, September 11, 2023 - 12:05pm
Updated: Monday, September 11, 2023 - 5:20pm

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Kane Fire ranch
Structure protection at Kane Ranch from the Kane Fire on Aug. 8, 2023.

Wildfire seasons are growing longer and more active, bringing smoke with well-known physiological effects.

But a new paper in the journal PNAS suggests tiny particulates kicked up by fires might also worsen mental health and even increase suicide rates.

Mounting evidence has tied air pollution to depression, anxiety and possibly even cognitive disorders such as dementia.

When researchers matched satellite data on wildfire smoke plumes to suicide data from 2007 to 2019, they found a 13% rise in concentrations of small particles called PM2.5s corresponded to a 2% surge in deaths by suicide in rural counties.

The effect was most evident among demographic groups with high baseline suicide risks and frequent outdoor activities.

Because the PNAS paper only looks at suicides and short-term events, it likely underestimates the effects of air pollution on broader mental health.

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