Pollution responsible for one in six deaths across planet, scientists warn
Toxic air, water and soil are ‘existential threat to human and planetary health’, says global review
Damian Carrington Environment editor
@dpcarrington, Tue 17 May 2022 18.30 EDT
Pollution is killing 9 million people a year, a review has found, making it responsible for one in six of all deaths.
Toxic air and contaminated water and soil “is an existential threat to human health and planetary health, and jeopardises the sustainability of modern societies”, the review concluded.
The death toll from pollution dwarfs that from road traffic deaths, HIV/Aids, malaria and TB combined, or from drug and alcohol misuse. The researchers calculated the economic impact of pollution deaths at $4.6tn (£3.7tn), about $9m a minute.
The overall impact of pollution has not improved since the first global review in 2017, since when 45 million lives have been lost to it. Prevention was largely overlooked in the international development agenda, the researchers said, with funding increasing only minimally since 2015.
Deaths from toxic air and chemicals have risen by 7% since the previous review and 66% since 2000, driven by increased fossil fuel burning, rising population numbers and unplanned urbanisation. This rise was offset by improvements in the “ancient scourges” of water polluted by pathogens and poor sanitation and indoor smoke from cooking fires.
The researchers said pollution, the climate crisis and the destruction of wildlife and nature “are the key global environmental issues of our time. These issues are intricately linked and solutions to each will benefit the others. [But] we cannot continue to ignore pollution. We are going backwards.”
Prof Philip Landrigan, at Boston College in the US and a lead author of the analysis, said: “Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health. 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.”
Awareness of pollution was key, said Richard Fuller, at the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) in Switzerland, another lead author. He said action plans have been presented to 11 national governments to date: “Ministers are just gobsmacked at how big an impact pollution is having in their country.” Measuring pollution and making it public also drives change, he said: “It switches on communities to want to do something and yell and scream at their politicians. Everything can roll from that.”
The new review, published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, analysed data from the 2019 Global Burden of Disease project, the most recent available, and found air pollution caused almost 75% of the 9 million pollution deaths.
Toxic chemicals resulted in 1.8 million deaths, including 900,000 deaths from lead pollution, which is more than from HIV/Aids. Lead poisoning could significantly reduce intelligence across large populations, Fuller said, sources of which include water pipes, paint, backyard car battery recycling, as well foodstuffs such as contaminated turmeric.
The number of deaths from chemical pollutants was likely to be an underestimate, the scientists said, as only a small proportion of the 350,000 synthetic chemicals in use had been adequately tested for safety. The cocktail of chemical pollution that pervades the planet has passed the safe limit for the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends, researchers reported in January.
More than 90% of pollution deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, such as India and Nigeria. While high-income countries, such as the US and members of the EU, had controlled the worst forms of pollution, the researchers said, few less affluent nations had been able to make pollution a priority.
Pollution also crossed international borders, carried on winds or in food exports, said Fuller: “If we’re going to keep everyone safe, we need to help countries that have these toxic problems to stop the pollution at the source.”
Unsafe water causes 1.4 million early deaths a year but this has been falling due to improvements in sanitation and healthcare, particularly in Africa. However, the UN estimates more than 2 billion people still do not have access to clean drinking water.
The researchers called for increased funding for pollution control from governments and donors, better monitoring and a new independent scientific body to assess the problem, modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose influential reports are agreed by all governments.
“Pollution has typically been viewed as a local issue,” said Rachael Kupka, also at GAHP, which includes the UN Environment Programme and the World Bank. “However, it is clear that pollution is a planetary threat. Global action on all major modern pollutants is needed.”