Equilibrium & Sustainability

Pollution responsible for 1 in 6 deaths worldwide: study

Pollution was responsible for about 9 million deaths across the world in 2019 — equivalent to 1 in 6 deaths — with little improvement from previous years, a new report has found.

Although the number of deaths from pollution sources associated with extreme poverty has decreased, these achievements have been offset by an increase in deaths attributable to modern industrial pollution, according to The Lancet’s Commission on Pollution Health.

The report, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, compared the number of deaths attributable to air pollution in 2019 to the number of deaths attributable to air pollution in 2015 — and determined that this figure remained largely unchanged.

“Despite its enormous health, social and economic impacts, pollution prevention is largely overlooked in the international development agenda,” lead author Richard Fuller, co-chairman of the Commission on Pollution and Health, said in a statement.

“Attention and funding has only minimally increased since 2015, despite well-documented increases in public concern about pollution and its health effects,” he added.

The Commission on Pollution and Health is a joint initiative of The Lancet, the Geneva-based Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Air pollution was the specific culprit responsible for 6.67 million — or nearly 75 percent — of the 9 million pollution-related deaths in 2019, according to the report.

Water pollution was responsible for 1.36 million premature deaths, lead pollution contributed to 900,000 such deaths and toxic occupational hazards were behind 870,000 deaths.

The decrease in deaths from traditional pollution sources — such as household air pollution from solid fuels and unsafe water — was most evident in Africa, the authors explained. They attributed these reductions to improvements in water supply and sanitation, antibiotics, treatments and cleaner fuels.

But this decrease in mortality was canceled out by a global surge in deaths related to industrial pollution in the past 20 years, the authors noted. This rise was particularly apparent in Southeast Asia, where the combination of increased industrial population and aging populations has left greater numbers of people exposed, according to the study. 

Deaths caused by modern pollution sources — such as ambient air pollution, hazardous chemical pollutants and lead — have increased by 66 percent in the past two decades, the authors found.

The number of deaths related to chemical exposures is likely to be an underestimate, the authors warned, noting that only a small percentage of manufactured chemicals have been sufficiently tested for safety or toxicity.

Excess deaths caused by pollution in 2019 led to economic losses equivalent to $4 trillion to $6 trillion that year — or about 6.2 percent of the global economic output, according to the report.

Meanwhile, 92 percent of these pollution-related deaths occurred in low-income and middle-income countries, the authors added.

Given these findings, the authors presented a variety of recommendations to international organizations and national governments — calling for the inclusion of pollution as a key driver in policy and investment decisions.

Impacted countries should focus more resources on targeting air pollution, lead pollution and chemical pollution, they said, noting that the global transition to wind and solar energy will help reduce ambient air pollution.

The authors also suggested that private and government donors allocate funding for pollution management.

“Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health and jeopardizes the sustainability of modern societies,” co-author Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program and Global Pollution Observatory at Boston College, said in a statement.

“Preventing pollution can also slow climate change — achieving a double benefit for planetary health — and our report calls for a massive, rapid transition away from all fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy,” Landrigan added.

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