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Wildfires may increase suicide risk in rural areas, study says

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.

→  Get the latest news on wildfires in Arizona

Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.