Air Quality

Published on May 15th, 2013 | by James Ayre


Coal Power Plant Emissions May Play Role In North Carolina’s High Suicide Rate, Research Finds

May 15th, 2013 by  

Is there a relationship between the air pollution released by coal-fired power plants and higher suicide rates? New research is strongly suggesting that there is — it links the high rate of suicide within North Carolina with the air pollution released there by coal-fired electricity plants. Specifically, the research found that county suicide rates correlated very predictably with the number of coal-fired electricity plants within said county.

Image Credit: Coal Smokestack via Flickr CC

Image Credit: Coal Smokestack via Flickr CC

“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,” said lead researcher John G. Spangler, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of family medicine at Wake Forest Baptist.

A very interesting finding, though certainly not surprising. Air pollution, of various types, is well known to have significant and negative effects on human health — being linked to early death, developmental disorders, asthma, low IQ, obesity, autism, insulin resistance in children, etc… And it may be associated with the vast and steep rise in the occurrence of dementia and other neurological diseases that has been observed in many countries during the last 40 or so years.

The new research was performed by evaluating “air level contaminates in 20 North Carolina counties where coal-fired electricity plants existed, using data from the 2000 U.S. Census, 2001-2005 mortality rates from the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” Wake Forest writes.

From the press release:

County-level suicide rates were higher overall in North Carolina (12.4 per 100,000 population) compared to the U.S. population (10.8 per 100,000). The study found that for each additional coal-fired electricity plant per N.C. county, there were about two additional suicides per 100,000 population annually per county. As there were 20 coal-fired electricity plants in North Carolina when this study was carried out, that means there were about 40 suicides a year per 100,000 population related to the plants. When applied to the state’s year 2,000 population of 8,049,313, this equals about 3,220 suicides a year associated with coal-fired electricity plants.

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

There had already been much research linking environmental contamination to mood disorders and suicide, but this is some of the first to specifically investigate the effects of coal emissions, Spangler said. “This is the first study to show that the existence of coal-fired electricity plants is related to population-level suicide rates. Because suicide might be associated with environmental pollution, this study may help inform regulations not only of air pollutants, but also of coal-fired electrical power plant emissions.”

Spangler has previously conducted ecological research into the effects that environmental heavy metals have on human health, looking specifically at their correlation to diabetes mortality, chronic liver disease death, cancer mortality, and infant mortality. According to Spangler, the new study “was subject to a number of limitations because it only looked at county-level characteristics and could not control for factors in individual residents.”

“Still, it raises the interesting question of whether suicide in a given population is related to the presence or absence of coal-fired electricity plants and the air quality,” he said. “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.”

The new research was published in the online edition of the Journal of Mood Disorders.

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Fredrik

    The fact that you call this research lowers my esteem for the blog. The original (3-page) article from the journal can be found at

    In it it is evident that they have not controlled for income in their model, which is the only model they present, and it is a highly relevant variable in suicide statistics. They had that data readily available in the summary statistics and still have not used it in the published regression, maybe because the statistical significance of the coal plant variable is sensitive to specification. But we will never know since the research is either not honest or not thorough.

    There are other methodological problems as well, but the point is that you should refer to research as research and this second rate articles should not be mentioned at all. The journal is not peer reviewed and the fact that you publish this as a fact will only help forces who work against clean energy and climate action as they will use it to argue that research in general is biased and inaccurate. There is likely a causal relation between mental health and air pollution, but please refer to proper research if you make such claims.

    • Mary

      Thank you, Fredrik. And while they’re at it, they should actually fund a major study on low frequency noise/infrasound from industrial wind since Raytheon just delivered crowd control equipment utilizing this NOISE and the health effects/symptoms are the same as those described by people living near improperly sited industrial wind. Let’s stop ignoring what we know in order to do what we want and stick to science: real science – which calls for control groups and consideration of many variables to reach valid conclusions. Desires, hopes and intent should not figure in to scientific methodology.

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