Quick: What is the most common means of committing suicide globally? I must admit the answer to this one surprised me: pesticides. I knew it was big, but I would have never guessed that upwards of a third of all suicides are committed using pesticides that are readily available for agriculture. In Sri Lanka, evidence from a new study that looked to measure the toxicity of readily available pesticides in PLoS Medicine suggest that upwards of half of suicides are committed using these readily available products.
Logic would sugget that restricting the availability of the harmful pesticides might be an effective strategy to reduce suicide. A summary of evidence in an accompanying comment does in fact support this view – that a move by the WHO to ban the availability of some classes of pesticides was associated with lower suicide deaths, most notably it appears that changes in the availability of pesticides is associated with reductions in deaths from suicide but not necessarily attempts at suicide.
Within the public health community, means restriction is viewed as an effective way of reducing mortality from suicide. Since not all attempts at suicide are successful, by restricting access to the most effective means, overall mortality rates can be reduced. Similar arguments have been made with regards to the availability of handguns in the United States.
Of course restricting pesticides might be detrimental to agricultural productivity, so we might want to consider these trade-offs. But experiences in other countries has suggested that restricting the availability of harmful pesticides, either through increased targeting of the product, through the use of less toxic pesticides, or other means can help achieve the public health benefits without decreasing agriculture productivity.
There is far too little research at the intersection of health, agriculture, and the environment. This is one more example of a real tangible problem that could be addressed with a stronger evidence base.
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