Newswise – A psychiatrist’s study of the suicide rate in a North Carolina county has revealed that it may be linked to releases of hydrogen sulfide and other airborne chemicals from a nearby paper mill and other industrial sites.

This is the second study to propose a possible link between increased suicide rates in a North Carolina community and chemical exposures from nearby industry. Psychiatrists think that suicides may be triggered by chronic low-level exposure to hydrogen sulfide and other potential neurotoxins released from nearby asphalt plants and petroleum remediation sites.

From 1994 through 2003, the suicide rate in two North Carolina neighborhoods was found to be 38.4 per 100,000 individuals a year, which is about three times the statewide average. The suicide rate in another N.C. area nearly doubled from an age-adjusted rate of 11.8 per 100,000 residents for 1990-1996 to about 21.1 per 100,000 residents for 1997-2002.

Psychiatrist Richard H. Weisler says, “We clearly know there have been increases in suicides during this time period when there were also operational changes at the paper mill. The 1997 spike in suicides in Haywood County corresponded to a switch to Bleach Filtrate Recycle in late 1996. Whether there is a connection between the increased suicides and operational changes has yet to be determined.”

The Haywood County mill uses Bleach Filtrate Recycle, or BFR, to help remove chlorine and other toxins from the waste discharged into the Pigeon River. But Weisler and co-authors said they questioned whether or not a cleaner river comes at the cost of dirtier air.

“The burning of chlorinated compounds that BFR potentially entails, as well as a possible increase in plant volume, may have led to increased releases of dioxins and other harmful compounds into the air,” Weisler says. “The switch to BFR, which involves burning of black liquor, may have resulted in an increase in air quality problems.” ‘Black liquor’ is chemical and wood waste produced when turning wood into paper pulp. Some paper mills, including the Haywood County mill, burn black liquor to produce electricity.

Studies of industries such as asphalt plants, paper mills and sewage treatment plants have shown that exposure to occupational levels of hydrogen sulfide (10 parts per million for a 10-minute ceiling) can result in nervousness, mania, dementia and violence. Weisler says, “It is unknown whether levels lower than those to which nearby residents are exposed also would influence brain chemistry. I think it has to be explored.”

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