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Järvholm and Stenberg1 evaluated suicide mortality rates among electricians (“exposed to electromagnetic fields (EMFs)”) and glass and wood workers (“unexposed to EMFs”) in the Swedish construction industry. Standard mortality rates were lower for the two job groups compared to the Swedish general population. This is likely to be due to the healthy worker effect. The internal cohort analysis showed that electricians had a lower suicide mortality rate than glass and wood workers.
As the authors rightfully point out, these results should not be seen as evidence against the association between exposure to EMFs and suicide, in particular because no quantitative estimates of exposure were obtained to directly evaluate this association. Järvholm and Stenberg cited a small measurement survey in the Swedish construction industry, which indicated that exposure levels were low and comparable between the two occupational groups. Therefore, one would not expect to see an EMF mediated increase in suicide risk among electricians compared to glass and wood workers, if an association between EMF exposure and suicide truly exists.
Järvholm and Stenberg suggested that the difference in suicide rate between the two job groups was unlikely to be due to differences in socioeconomic factors, but they did not provide an alternative explanation. One possible explanation may be a healthy worker survivor effect related to employment status (for example, at time of death) within this cohort. That is, active workers may be more physically and mentally fit than those who left the industry or are unemployed, and may therefore be at lower risk of committing suicide.2 A large body of literature suggests that unemployment and suicide are positively related,3,4 and being out of work was positively associated with suicide in the electric utility industry.2 Since cessation of work also leads to cessation of work related exposures, employment status may be an important potential confounder (or perhaps effect modifier) for the association between work related exposures and suicide. The lower suicide rate among electricians compared to glass and wood workers may be explained by a larger proportion of glass and wood workers with an inactive employment status at the time of death.
Although it is unlikely that consideration of employment status, if possible, would greatly alter the conclusions reached by Järvholm and Stenberg,1 it would be informative to see its influence on the rate ratio.
We appreciate Dr Wijngaarden's interest in our report and his suggestion for understanding the differences in risk. Dr Wijngaarden suggests that difference in unemployment rate between electricians and glass worker and wood workers could be an explanation.
We have no data on employment status at time of death and can therefore not test this hypothesis. However, if employment status is an important predictor, this could explain some of the difference, as the wood workers had a different employment structure to the other groups. Electricians and glass workers have had permanent positions for a long time, while wood workers were employed for a certain project, for example, building a house, before the 1990s. When the project was finished they had to find another employer. Today, most construction workers have permanent positions in Sweden.
In our search of the literature in an attempt to understand differences in suicide rates between occupations, we found little information. This might be an important area of research in the future.