Pollution Killed 9 Million in 2019
A new study published in Lancet Planetary Health has found that air, water, and chemical pollution killed 9 million people in 2019, or one in six worldwide. Pollution’s death toll exceeded that of road traffic, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and TB combined.
Air pollution is its most deadly form, causing 6.5 million deaths in 2019, or 75% of reported pollution deaths. Air pollution increases the likelihood of developing heart disease, respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes, low birth rate, and kidney disease -- all of which can be fatal.
That said, chemical pollution is a close second. Global chemical production has grown by 3.5% per year since 2000, causing 1.8 million deaths annually. In particular, lead was a factor in nearly 1 million premature deaths in 2019. In 2020, UNICEF found that approximately 800 million children had high levels of the element in their blood.
Experts say deaths from chemical pollution are underestimated. “We're not measuring mercury or pesticides or chromium or arsenic or asbestos,” Richard Fuller, the report's lead author, told NBC. “If we were to measure properly all of the different chemical exposures, it's probably as big as air pollution."
NBC: New Study Finds Pollution Caused Nearly Nine Million Deaths Worldwide In 2019, May 18, 2022.
The Lancet: Pollution | A global public health crisis, October 19, 2017.
CNBC: Why Air Quality In The US Is So Bad, April 22, 2021.
Why This Matters
Clean air and water are basic survival needs and therefore, human rights. They are increasingly under threat for all, and especially for the world’s most vulnerable people. The new Lancet study found that over 92% of the disease burden from pollution falls on residents of low- and middle-income countries, making environmental pollution their largest cause of disease and death. Even so, pollution affects us all. Almost 90% of people who live in cities across the world breathe polluted air at unsafe levels annually.
Philip Landrigan, a lead author told the Guardian: “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.”
TED: End fossil fuels to protect human health | Carolyn Orr, March 1, 2022.
Greenpeace: What is Environmental Racism?, March 19, 2021.
Robin Hood: "This is Loss and Damage - Who Pays" narrated by Mark Strong, September 23, 2021.
Finding A Solution
Pollution has been largely ignored by governments across the world and a lack of quantitative data on pollution rates has made the issue difficult to monitor and address, according to the study in the Lancet. If cleaning up the world’s water and air were made a priority, human life expectancies could increase by an average of 2.2 years.
“All sectors need to integrate pollution control into plans to address other key threats such as climate, biodiversity, food, and agriculture,” the report said.
Similar to remarks by former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger during COP26,
Dr. Keith Martin, executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health and co-author of the paper, emphasized that pollution is a crucial political issue.
"Addressing pollution is a political choice,” said Martin. “We must all advocate at all levels of government and in our communities to scale up known interventions that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels ... and engage in source control for dangerous chemicals and heavy metals.”
CBS: Huge carbon emissions cuts needed, UN climate report finds, April 4, 2022.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Electric Vehicles - The Promise for Health and Equity, September 14, 2021.
Bloomberg: Scaling Up Renewable Energy Usage, March 16, 2022.
IEA: A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use, March 18, 2022.