Electrifying News

by Howard Fienberg
April 2000

What makes suicide research newsworthy? Media coverage of two studies, that were released simultaneously last month demonstrates that linking social problems and suicide risk may be depressing, but an association with environmental exposures sparks interest.

According to the Associated Press, “chronic exposure to low-frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) may be responsible for higher suicide risk among electric utility workers” (Mar. 15). Research in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine (OEM) found an association between EMFs encountered on the job and suicide. The researchers hypothesized that the EMFs might inhibit the production of melatonin, leading to depression.

The Chapel Hill Herald (Mar. 16) quoted co-author David Savitz, “I think it’s very tenuous,” and noted that a similar study in Quebec found no evidence of such a link. But no news coverage discussed other risk factors for suicide, like marital status or a history of mental or addictive disorders, which were not examined in the OEM study.

Research released the same day, but unreported in the media, found that marital status “has [a] strong net effect on mortality from suicide.” The article, from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, concluded that married men are much less likely to commit suicide than single or divorced men.

Given the simultaneous releases, why did the media only cover the EMF study? More importantly, why did no one question the lack of control for marital status in the EMF study or the lack of control for EMF exposure in the marital study?

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