China’s suicide rate fell dramatically following pesticide bans, new study finds

*This article discusses suicide. If you have questions on self-harm or feel suicidal, use this link to find an international helpline –*

Yunnan rice paddies
Photo by Natalia Chernenko on Unsplash

New research suggests that China’s pesticide bans have contributed to a substantial fall in the country’s suicide rate.

Deaths from pesticide suicide fell by over 60% between 2006 and 2018, following the introduction of regulations to remove access to some acutely toxic highly hazardous pesticides.

The research, led by Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention with input from the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention, is the first to investigate the impact of China’s pesticide bans on suicide at a national level.

High suicide rate

China has a high suicide rate compared to the rest of the world, although it has fallen markedly over the last 20 years. It is also the world’s largest pesticide user. The leading method of suicide in the country is pesticide poisoning, which used to account for around one-half of all suicide deaths.

Many of these deaths are impulsive acts of self-harm, undertaken in moments of crisis or acute psychosocial stress. In these moments, people are at risk due to the availability of acutely toxic pesticides – a lethal means of suicide.

In the 1970’s, China began to regulate pesticides. Altogether, 54 pesticides have either been banned or had their use restricted. At the same time, suicide rates declined significantly over the past two decades.

A downward trend

The research team analysed data on suicide from 2006 – 2018, obtained from the China National Disease Surveillance Points systems.

They found a downward trend in the pesticide suicide rate, which fell by 60.5%. There was also a decrease in the overall suicide rate, which fell by 45.1%.

The research showed that the pesticide suicide rate had already been falling in urban areas prior to the pesticide regulations. However, in rural, agricultural settings the rate of suicide from pesticide poisoning had been increasing. After regulations were introduced, the pesticide suicide rate declined by 57.2% in rural areas.   

An effective approach to suicide prevention

Dr Shiwei Liu, whose team led the research, said:

“Although local evaluations on the link between pesticides and suicides have been undertaken in several provinces across China, the impact of pesticide bans has never before been investigated at a national level. It was therefore previously unknown whether the reduction in deaths was a result of pesticide regulation.”

“Considering that the suicide rate in China has declined dramatically over the past two decades, and the proportion of suicide by pesticides dropped from over half to around a third, we consider the pesticide ban and restriction policy to have been effective in preventing deaths from suicide.”

Professor Michael Eddleston, Director of the Centre for Pesticide Suicide Prevention said:

“This important research adds to a growing body of evidence clearly showing that pesticide bans are a highly effective way to prevent deaths from pesticide self-poisoning. We have already seen similar success across Asia, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Korea. Now we have demonstrated a remarkably large effect in China as well – all due to the efforts of pesticide regulators in the national regulatory body, ICAMA”

“Significantly, it is not just the pesticide suicide rate that has declined, but also the overall suicide rate. This suggests that method substitution is not a major issue. After surviving a suicide attempt from pesticide poisoning, people are not choosing to die by other means. This is because many self-harm or suicide attempts are impulsive, undertaken in moments of crisis, with no long-term desire to die. By restricting access to lethal means of suicide, we are able to save lives.”

The full findings from the study are published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.