Poor bear the brunt of 9m pollution-linked deaths a year

‘Lancet’ findings: Most detailed review of pollution impact on global health ever compiled

Pollution is blamed for up to nine million deaths each year worldwide, disproportionately affecting people living in some of the world’s poorest countries, according to a global investigation.

The findings, published in The Lancet, include the most in-depth and detailed estimates of the impact of pollution on global health that have ever been compiled.

Air pollution is the biggest contributor, linked to 6.5 million deaths in 2015, while 1.8 million deaths are tied to poor water quality, while 800,000 people died that year due to work-linked causes.

The research was produced by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, a two-year project involving more than 40 international health and environmental researchers.


Non-communicable diseases

Most of those who died did so because of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Water and soil contamination, along with human-made chemicals, are also among the largest risk factors for premature death. Almost all such deaths (92 per cent) occurred in “low- and middle-income countries”.

Condemning the “neglect” by politicians on the issue of pollution affecting the world’s poor, the report’s authors say the poor and marginalised suffer most of all in every country, including Ireland.

Most pollution-related deaths occur in two countries: India and China. In 2015, 2.5 million Indians died directly or indirectly due to pollution, while 1.8 million were claimed in China. By contrast, 1,774 people died similarly in Ireland.

Air pollution is blamed on the burning of wood, peat, charcoal, coal, dung or crop wastes indoors, and emissions from factories, cars and other fossil fuel-linked sources.

Parasitic infections

Gastrointestinal diseases and parasitic infections caused by poor water are other noted causes. Work-related diseases such as pneumoconiosis in coal workers, bladder cancer in dye workers, or asbestosis and lung cancer killed hundreds of thousands.

Extraordinarily, lead pollution has been directly linked by the survey to 500,000 deaths that resulted from high blood pressure, renal failure and cardiovascular disease.

"Pollution is much more than an environmental challenge – it is a profound and pervasive threat that affects many aspects of human health and wellbeing. It deserves the full attention of international leaders, civil society, health professionals and people around the world," said commission co-lead Prof Philip Landrigan of Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, US.

While the vast majority of pollution-related deaths occur in poor countries, the greatest impacts occur in countries undergoing rapid development, the study notes – with pollution responsible for up to one in four deaths in the worst-affected countries – notably India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Madagascar and Kenya.

As countries develop and industrialise, the type of pollution and related health problems they face change. Water pollution and household air pollution are more common in early stages of industrial development, for instance, while deaths associated with these problems have fallen from 5.9 million in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2015.

Industrial development

Deaths arising from pollution associated with industrial development, such as ambient air pollution (including ozone and particulate matter from diesel cars), chemical, occupational pollution and soil pollution, have increased from 4.3 million in 1990 to 5.5 million in 2015 as countries reach higher levels of development.

Pollution is not the inevitable consequence of economic development, the authors note. Applying similar legislation and regulation from high-income countries to low- and middle-income countries could help to improve and protect health as countries develop.

The effects of pollution “disproportionately affect the poor and marginalised in countries at every level of income” as they are more often exposed to toxic chemicals via contaminated air and water, unsafe workplaces, and other pollution-generating sources within close proximity to their homes.

The authors list environmental injustices ranging from Roma people being placed in refugee camps in an area polluted by toxic remains from a lead mine in Kosovo, to higher levels of ambient air pollution in disadvantaged areas of New York due to high numbers of local bus depots.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times