Pollution was responsible for at least 9 million deaths in 2019, according to a new study, and the following years haven't fared better. That's the equivalent of one in six deaths worldwide a year.
According to the report published in The Lancet Planetary Health, around 75 percent of the 9 million deaths are attributable to air pollution, both ambient in the outside air and household from indoor fires, while 1.8 million deaths are caused by toxic chemical pollution, such as exposure to lead. Water pollution was responsible for a further 1.36 million premature deaths.
Worryingly, the study authors write that they found very little evidence that pollution is being tackled in any meaningful way, despite the many international efforts to clear up the problem.
“The health impacts of pollution remain enormous, and low- and middle-income countries bear the brunt of this burden. Despite its enormous health, social and economic impacts, pollution prevention is largely overlooked in the international development agenda,” lead author Richard Fuller, from the Alliance on Health and Pollution, 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.”
Poorer parts of the world took the brunt of the impact with 92 percent of pollution-related deaths, and the greatest burden of pollution’s economic losses, occurring in low-income and middle-income countries.
One positive is that deaths from “traditional pollution,” such as household air pollution from solid fuels and unsafe water, have declined significantly since 2000, most notably in Africa. However, this progress has been totally offset by a severe increase in deaths from exposure to industrial pollution, including ambient air pollution, lead pollution, and other forms of chemical pollution.
The researchers argue that the problem needs to be urgently addressed, primarily through improved pollution monitoring and better data collection. Not only could this save lives, they argue, but it will also help to address another existential threat to humans: climate change.
“Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health and jeopardizes the sustainability of modern societies. 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,” said co-author Professor Philip Landrigan, Director of Global Public Health Program and Global Pollution Observatory at Boston College.
“Pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss are closely linked. Successful control of these conjoined threats requires a globally supported, formal science-policy interface to inform intervention, influence research, and guide funding," added co-author Rachael Kupka, Executive Director of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.
"Pollution has typically been viewed as a local issue to be addressed through subnational and national regulation or occasionally with regional policy in higher-income regions. However, it is clear that pollution is a planetary threat, and that its drivers, dispersion, and health impacts transcend local boundaries and demand a global response. Global action on all major modern pollutants is needed.”