Global pollution kills is responsible for the loss of nine million lives every year; the deaths attributed to pollution are triple those from Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined, despite the fact that the latter have received more attention in both academic and practical level. Global pollution, including toxic air, water, soils and workplaces, is one of the deadliest yet shockingly underrated health problems in the modern world. “Pollution is one of the great existential challenges of the [human-dominated] Anthropocene era,” concluded the authors of the Commission on Pollution and Health published in The Lancet. “Pollution endangers the stability of the Earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies.”
“For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, the environment, and the planet have been neglected both by Governments and the international development agenda. Yet, pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths”, report the scientists leading the commission. The Lancet Commission’s report was published in the Lancet on Friday and addresses the full health and economic costs of air, water, and soil toxicity. The report was produced by more than 40 researchers from governments and universities across the globe and was funded by the UN, the EU and the US.
Poor nations suffer disproportionately and, needless to say, this puts a hugely expensive burden on developing economies. The vast majority of the pollution deaths occur in nations such as India, Chad and Madagascar, where pollution causes a quarter of all deaths accounted so far. Low-income and rapidly industrializing countries are worst affected, suffering 92% of pollution-related deaths, with Somalia suffering the highest rate of pollution deaths. India has by far the largest number of pollution deaths at 2.5million. China is second with 1.8m and Russia and the US are also in the top 10. But industrialized countries suffer In terms of workplace-pollution related deaths; the UK, Japan and Germany all appear in the top 10. “Traditional” pollution deaths – from contaminated water and wood cooking fires – appear to be falling as development work bears fruit, but “modern” pollution deaths, linked to urbanization and industrialization, are quickly rising. For example, air pollution deaths in south-east Asia are on track to double by 2050!
The commission report combined data from the World Health Organization and elsewhere and found air pollution was the biggest killer, leading to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other illnesses. Outdoor air pollution, largely from vehicles and industry, caused 4.5m deaths a year and indoor air pollution, from wood and dung stoves, caused 2.9m. The next biggest killer was pollution of water, often with sewage, which is linked to 1.8m deaths as a result of gastrointestinal diseases and parasitic infections. Workplace pollution, including exposure to toxins, carcinogens and secondhand tobacco smoke, resulted in 800,000 deaths from diseases including pneumoconiosis in coal workers and bladder cancer in dye workers. Lead pollution, the one metal for which some data is available, was linked to 500,000 deaths a year. The scientists believe the figure of 9 million deaths could be an underestimate by some million people at least, since research on the impacts of some substances, like plastic, has not yet concluded. Scientists are still discovering links between pollution and ill health, such as the connection between air pollution and dementia, diabetes and kidney disease. Furthermore, lack of data on many toxic metals and chemicals could not be included in the new analysis. Available data does not include lead’s impact from toxic sites like Flint, in Michigan, US, or Kabwe, the world’s most polluted city in Zambia. Yet these populations experience enormous health impacts.
In fact, Professor Philip Landrigan, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, US, who co-led the commission, told The Guardian one of his biggest concerns is the unknown impact of the hundreds of industrial chemicals and pesticides already widely dispersed around the world; “I worry we have created a situation where people are exposed to chemicals that are eroding intelligence or impairing reproduction or weakening their immune system, but we have not yet been smart enough to make the connection between the exposure and the outcome, because it is subtle.”
The authors remain optimistic, taking in account the big improvements made in developed nations in recent decades, showing that beating pollution is a winnable battle. Rolling out new regulations, ending subsidies for polluting industries and deploying technology like smokestack filters could tackle pollution, but more research on the impact of pollution is also urgently required. Regulation, technology and research are the keys to success, but this is the point when political will is also needed.