1 in 6 deaths globally linked to pollution

  • Researchers investigated the effects of pollution on public health between 2000 and 2019.
  • They found that more than 9 million deaths worldwide, or 1 in 6 deaths globally, are linked to pollution. 
  • They say that pollution-focused policies are needed to curb the effects of pollution on public health and the climate. 

Pollution is an unwanted waste of human origin that is released into the air, land, and water.

The 2017 Lancet Commission on pollution and health found that in 2015 alone, pollution was responsible for around 16% of deaths globally. 

Monitoring the effects of pollution on public health could help develop policies to prevent negative health consequences. 

Recently, researchers updated the 2017 Lancet Commission on pollution and health with data from 2019. 

Although deaths from household and water pollution have fallen since 2015, pollution still caused over 9 million deaths worldwide in 2019.

“Given the lack of prioritization of a sustainable environment, I am not surprised we have not progressed in reducing pollution-related health [issues] in the last 5 years,” Dana Boyd Barr, Ph.D., professor of Exposure Science and Environmental Health at Emory University, not involved in the report, told Medical News Today.

“The U.S. has some of the most relaxed environmental policies globally and contributes significantly to global pollution. The approximation of deaths attributable to environmental pollution in this article is likely underestimated because of pollutants that are yet to be recognized,” she added.

Analysis: Pollution-related deaths

The researchers used 2019 data from the Global Burden of Disease, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD). They also assessed trends since 2000. 

The researchers noted that, between 2000 and 2019, there was a steady decline in deaths from household air pollution and water sanitation, especially in Africa. They suggest that the decline is primarily due to improvements in water supply, sanitation, antibiotics, and cleaner fuels. 

Deaths from other forms of pollution, however, have risen. Ambient particulate matter air pollution was responsible for 4.5 million deaths in 2019, up from 4.2 million in 2015 and 2.9 million in 2000.

“According to the report, ambient particulate matter air pollution, most of which is produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, is responsible for more than 4 million deaths per year,” said Dr. Robert Dubrow, Ph.D., an epidemiology professor at Yale University who is not involved in the report.

“The use of fossil fuels for energy is also the main source of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change,” he continued. 

The researchers also found that over 90% of pollution-related deaths occurred in low-income and middle-income countries, particularly South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. 

The researchers further noted that although their data suggested that lead exposure was responsible for 0.9 million deaths in 2019, the figure is likely larger. 

Research suggests that even low blood lead concentrations could lead to cardiovascular and renal toxicity. Further analyses have noted that lead exposure is more common in children than previously recognized. 

The severe effects on cognitive function of lead exposure lead to global economic losses of $1 trillion per year. 

The researchers also noted that the disease burden from chemical pollution is likely underestimated. Only a few of the thousands of manufactured chemicals in commerce have been adequately tested for safety and toxicity. 

The most concerning effects of these chemical pollutants include poorly documented risks for developmental neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, and immunotoxicity. 

Policy change

The researchers said that there has been “strikingly little effort” in most countries in creating policies to curb pollution-related consequences to health since their last report and recommendations in 2017.

Nevertheless, they once again recommend prioritizing pollution and health protection nationally and internationally. They further recommended: 

  • Increasing international funding for pollution prevention 
  • Establishing systems to monitor and control pollution
  • Monitoring lead and chemical pollution 
  • Monitoring water, sanitation, and hygiene 
  • Building multisectoral partnerships for pollution control 

The researchers concluded that international organizations and national governments need to continue expanding the focus on pollution as a global environmental issue. 

When asked what the public could do to mitigate the situation, Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou ScD., Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, not involved in the report, said that there is little the public can do. 

She noted: “Ambient air pollution is such a ubiquitous exposure and can even penetrate the building envelope and come into our homes and apartments.”

She added that personal practices such as paying attention to warnings about high pollution days, switching cooking practices, and taking mass transit over single-occupancy driving would only minimally reduce exposure. 

Both Dr. Dana Boyd Barr and Dr. Kioumourtzoglou agreed that there need to be local and federal policies restricting pollutive practices for substantial reductions.

“Given the large number of deaths from particulate matter air pollution, even if climate change were not an issue, converting from fossil fuels to non-polluting renewable energy would be an urgent public health priority,” said Dr. Dubrow, “We have the technology to make this transition. What is lacking is the political will.”

“The public in the U.S. and the U.K. needs to elect representatives who are not beholden to the fossil fuel industry and who support vigorous environmental action, including financing to help low- and middle-income countries make this transition,” he explained. 

“Both climate change and pollution are global problems that require global solutions, and it is in the interest of people in the U.S. and the U.K. to help make this transition happen globally,” he concluded.

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