Pollution killed nine million people worldwide in 2019

Pollution world’s largest environmental risk factor for disease and premature death, study finds

An aerial view of New Delhi, India, engulfed in a thick layer of smog. EPA
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Nine million people died from pollution in 2019, experts said in a recent report.

One in six deaths worldwide in 2019 were caused by air, chemical and water pollution, with little progress made in tackling the public health crisis over the course of the four previous years, the study found.

The report, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, said that pollution is the world’s largest environmental risk factor for disease and premature death.

It showed that the number of deaths linked to pollution associated with extreme poverty, such as unclean water, a lack of sanitation and household air pollution from burning fuels such as wood for cooking and heating, have fallen.

But this was offset by an increase in deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution and toxic chemicals such as lead poisoning.

Air pollution — both indoor and outdoor — causes more than 6.6 million early deaths globally every year, and that number is increasing. Lead and other chemicals are responsible for 1.8 million deaths a year, the researchers said.

Over the past two decades, deaths caused by modern forms of pollution such as dirty air from burning fossil fuels and toxic chemicals have increased 66 per cent in the face of increased industrialisation, uncontrolled city development, population growth and a lack of regulation.

Pollution remains a major global threat to health and prosperity, and international action on all major pollutants is needed, the report said.

More than 90 per cent of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries, and most countries have done little to deal with the “enormous” public health problem, it added.

Pollution, climate change and wildlife loss are closely linked, and action to tackle one could help deal with the other crises.

A large-scale, rapid shift away from fossil fuels, which emit pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides as well as carbon emissions when burnt, would help tackle air pollution as well as slow down climate change.

“The health impacts of pollution remain enormous, and low- and middle-income countries bear the brunt of this burden,” said Richard Fuller, lead author of the study.

“Despite its enormous health, social and economic impacts, pollution prevention is largely overlooked in the international development agenda.”

Mr Fuller added that attention and funding has only minimally increased since 2015.

“Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health and jeopardises the sustainability of modern societies,” said co-author Professor Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Programme and Global Pollution Observatory at Boston College in the US.

“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.”

Updated: May 17, 2022, 10:30 PM
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