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Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 02:52 GMT
Electromagnetic fields 'raise suicide risk'
Electricity power station
Electricity workers may be at risk of depression
People may be more likely to commit suicide if they are regularly exposed to low frequency electromagnetic fields, research has found.

US scientists studied workers employed by five electric power companies between 1950 and 1986.

They selected a sample of almost 6,000 workers from a total of 139,000 for detailed study.

The average length of time worked in the industry was 16 years.

The researchers found that suicide deaths were twice as high among those employees whose work regularly exposed them to electromagnetic radiation.

The highest risk of suicide was found among those with the highest levels of exposure, particularly in the year preceding death.

'Increased vulnerability'

The researchers said: "The results of this study provide evidence for an association between cumulative exposure of extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields and suicide."

Among those workers who committed suicide before the age of 50, the link was even stronger.

The researchers said: "We hypothesise that an increased vulnerability at younger ages may be based on a change in the nature of depression with age, with suicide more closely linked to depression among younger workers."

Major depression is not usually associated with physical health and is more common in younger people.

Minor depression occurs later in life and is often linked with medical illness.

Hormone theory

The authors suggest that electromagnetic fields may reduce the production of melatonin, a hormone that maintains the normal daily rhythms of the body, including the sleep and wake cycle.

Reduced levels of melatonin are associated with depression.

Lead researcher Dr Edwin van Wijngaarden told BBC News Online: "Exposure to extremely-low-frequency (50 or 60 Hz) electromagnetic fields (EMF) may reduce melatonin levels in the human body, which in its turn may cause mental depression. This may ultimately lead to suicide."

However, Mr van Wijngaarden said it would be premature to consider new guidelines on exposure to electromagnetic radiation.

Seratonin levels

He said: "We need a larger body of evidence before we can conclude that EMF is a causal factor for suicide, and before any regulation of exposure."

Dr Cosmo Hallstrom, a consultant psychiatrist from the Charter Clinic in London, said electromagnetic radiation had been associated with disruption to levels of seratonin, a brain chemical known to be linked to depression.

He said: "This bears closer examination, but I do not think the case has been proven by any means, and I would not be giving up my job yet if I worked in a power station."

Exposure to electromagnetic fields has been linked to the development of cancerous tumours. However, this theory is the subject of bitter controversy in scientific circles.

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