Pollution is responsible for one in six deaths a year – and it’s getting worse

One of the world’s deadliest killers lurk all around us in the air we breathe and the products we consume. Yes, we are talking about pollution.

And it won’t go away. A new report published Tuesday in The Lancet Planetary Health notes that pollution continues to kill a staggering number of people worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income countries. But pollution poses a serious threat to the health of every person on the planet, the report authors insist.

“People in the United States should be concerned about these findings,” said Philip Landrigan, co-author of the report and director of Boston College’s Global Pollution Observatory. inverse

What’s new – The recent findings from the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health are actually an update of a pollution report published five years ago, when the researchers first analyzed premature deaths from pollution.

The 2017 report found that pollution was the leading environmental risk factor for human death worldwide. Unfortunately, that fact hasn’t changed at all in the past five years — and in some ways has gotten worse — according to the new report, which uses data from the 2019 Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study to assess the impact of pollution on human health. health.

The report’s most damning conclusion: Nine million people worldwide die prematurely every year from pollution. The World Health Organization reports that there were 55.4 million deaths in 2019, meaning pollution causes nearly one in six deaths worldwide. More than 90 percent of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in parts of Asia and Africa.

“What [the report] shows that the number of deaths from pollution has not changed in four years,” says Landrigan.

India and China lead the way, with more than 2 million deaths from pollution in each country in 2019. But according to Landrigan, the US was responsible for 215,000 deaths from pollution each year. Pollution-related deaths in the US average 43.6 deaths per 100,000 — significantly higher than other high-income countries like Finland, which averaged 29 deaths per 100,000 people.

A figure from the report compares deaths from pollution with other causes of death.Fuller et al

“Air and water pollution has improved tremendously since the EPA’s inception in the 1970s, but we still have a long way to go in the United States and chemical pollution is quietly getting worse,” Landrigan added.

There are some bright spots in the report, highlighting that deaths from traditional pollution — such as household pollution from lack of clean water or air pollution from cooking smoke — have decreased as a result of major government and charitable initiatives.

But on the other hand, the rising number of deaths from modern pollution due to industrialization has increased by 66 percent since 2000, effectively offsetting the decline in deaths from traditional pollution.

Environmental or environmental air pollution is the leading cause of death, leading to 6.5 million deaths each year. The remaining deaths are due to lead poisoning – a major problem for children – and chemical pollution. The report also found significant sex differences in pollution-related deaths. Women and children typically die from water pollution, while men are more likely to die from air and lead pollution.

In summary, global pollution is a threat to public health “greater than that of war, terrorism, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs and alcohol,” the report said.

Why it happens – The report not only highlights the staggering death toll from pollution, but also shows how little the global community has failed to act on such a serious public health threat since the last report in 2017. Rachael Kupka, co-author of the report and executive director of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, says: inverse the response to the 2017 Lancet report was “anemic.”

“Five years ago we warned the world about this really big problem. Not much has really happened,” says Kupka.

Death rates from pollution are rising in Southeast Asia and South Asia.Fuller et al

Without urgent action from governments and agencies like the United Nations, the pollution problem will only get worse. According to Landrigan, the number of deaths from air pollution will double by 2050.

Compared to higher-income countries in North America and the EU, low- and middle-income countries have seen relatively higher death rates from pollution. The reasons behind the rising death rates from pollution in low- and middle-income countries are complex, but mainly have to do with increased industrialization in these countries – including greater reliance on fossil fuels – and a lack of strict pollution monitoring, as well as insufficient international funding. to prevent pollution.

Pollution is also often seen as an environmental problem rather than a health problem. It lacks the significant funding and political attention given to other public health issues, although the most recent Lancet report finds pollution a “major risk factor” for non-infectious diseases, similar to smoking, substance abuse and unhealthy diets.

“We’re trying to draw attention to this fact and say that this is really a public health issue, and it’s getting worse,” Kupka added.

Lead poisoning can also cause serious cognitive damage in children. Children with lead concentrations above five micrograms per deciliter of blood often score three to five points lower on IQ tests than children with lower blood values. More than 800 million children have blood lead concentrations that exceed these levels, according to the report.

“For those kids, he’s basically a health emergency for them,” Kupka says.

Lead poisoning affects not only individuals, but society as a whole. The report’s authors state that lead-related IQ problems contribute to global economic losses of nearly $1 trillion.

“We cannot continue to ignore pollution. We are going backwards,” the report warns gravely.

A figure from the study shows average blood lead concentrations in children around the world. Lead poisoning is one of the leading causes of deaths from pollution. Fuller et al

What’s next – Despite the bleak prognosis, there is to be ways to reduce the striking death toll from pollution, experts say. First, we need to focus much more attention and funding on the issue of pollution, and quickly. There are few global agreements to specifically address pollution efforts, further hampering efforts to curb pollution.

“The greatest need is for policymakers in countries and in UN agencies to make pollution prevention a high priority and put serious funding into fighting pollution,” says Landrigan.

In addition to more funding, Kupka says governments in low- and middle-income countries should be able to prioritize pollution “within their own development agendas.” One way to achieve this is by bringing leaders from different ministries together to discuss and tackle pollution – a model developed by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, known as the Health and Pollution Action Plan.

But it will be difficult to eradicate deaths from pollution if we don’t focus on the main source: fossil fuels. The report’s authors are clear: we need to expend the same urgency on tackling pollution as we do the climate crisis, recognizing that pollution — primarily from the burning of fossil fuels — also contributes to global warming.

“Continuing pollution control – and prevention of the diseases it causes – will require a massive, government-backed transition from gas, oil and coal to clean renewable energy,” Landrigan concluded.

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