A landmark report in The Lancet has found that pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths (Lancet report on pollution and death)
We have long known that air pollution, for example, can cause premature death with the figure of 40 000 in the UK alone (Source: Royal College of Physicians Every breath we take – impact of air pollution) through outdoor and indoor air pollutants.
The Lancet report looks at the full health and economic costs of air, water, and soil pollution and concludes that pollution kills at least nine million people and costs trillions of dollars every year. The deaths are triple those from Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
Deaths in poorer and developed nations
Most pollution deaths occur in poorer nations and in some, such as India, Chad and Madagascar, pollution causes a quarter of all deaths.
While developed nations have more control over exposure of their citizens to pollution, the US and Japan are in the top 10 for deaths from “modern” forms of pollution, ie fossil fuel-related air pollution and chemical pollution.
Developed nations have made some improvements in reducing air pollution such as unleaded petrol, emission standards and other controls. All it takes is the political will and viewing the big picture as opposed to bending to the concerns of powerful industry lobbies.
Deaths from traditional pollution and new sources
Prof Philip Landrigan, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, US Landrigan said the scale of deaths from pollution had surprised the researchers and that two other “real shockers” stood out.
First was how quickly modern pollution deaths were rising, while “traditional” pollution deaths – from contaminated water and wood cooking fires – were falling as development work bears fruit.
The estimate of 9 million may in fact be am underestimate as scientists are discovering links between pollution and ill health. For example there is now an established connection between air pollution and dementia, diabetes and kidney disease.
Furthermore, a lack of data on many toxic metals and chemicals could not be included in the new analysis.
The commission report combined data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) 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.
Economic costs of pollution
The researchers estimated the welfare losses from pollution at $4.6tn a year, equivalent to more than 6% of global GDP. “Those costs are so massive they can drag down the economy of countries that are trying to get ahead,” said Landrigan. “We always hear ‘we can’t afford to clean up pollution’ – I say we can’t afford not to clean it up.”
Richard Fuller at Pure Earth, an international pollution clean-up charity and co-lead of the commission, said: “Pollution can be eliminated and pollution prevention can be highly cost-effective, helping to improve health and extend lifespan, while boosting the economy.”
Since the US clean air act was introduced in 1970, levels of the six major pollutants have fallen by 70% while GDP has gone up by 250%, said Landrigan: “That puts the lie to the argument that pollution control kills jobs and stifles the economy.”
“Pollution has not received nearly as much attention as climate change, or Aids or malaria – it is the most underrated health problem in the world,” he said.