Polluted Environment is Responsible for One-Quarter of Global Deaths

From cities choked with smog to rural villages with contaminated waterways, people around the world face threats of disease from their environment that too often result in premature death.

Roughly 12.6 million people died in 2012 owing to working or living in an unhealthy environment, according to report released Tuesday by the World Health Organization. That figure accounts for nearly a quarter of all deaths across the globe.

Air and water pollution, along with exposure to chemicals and radiation, contribute to more than 100 life-threatening diseases and injuries. The overall number of deaths has not increased since WHO’s last report, released in 2002; that’s because increased access to clean water, mosquito nets, and immunization, the number of deaths from transmissible diseases such as malaria and diarrhea have declined. However, deaths caused by conditions exacerbated by air pollution—including stroke, heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease—have climbed, accounting for more than 8 million deaths in 2012.

Illnesses from environmental hazards also disproportionately impact both the young and elderly. Children under five and adults between the ages of 50 and 75 accounted for half the deaths in 2012.

While the report provides a sobering look at the way our environment affects human health, it also points to solutions to combat the growing issue. WHO officials say policymakers can curb deaths by focusing on preventative strategies such as increased access to clean water and clean-energy initiatives.

“There’s an urgent need for investment in strategies to reduce environmental risks in our cities, homes, and workplaces,” Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said in a press release. “Such investments can significantly reduce the rising worldwide burden of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, injuries, and cancers, and lead to immediate savings in health care costs.”

For instance, urban planners in Curitiba, Brazil, developed a number of cost-effective ways to improve the environment, including creating a waste recycling program, cleaning up slums, and introducing a bus-based transit system and pedestrian walkways to reduce pollution from personal vehicles. According to WHO, the city’s pollution levels are now lower than many other metropolises, and life expectancy is two years longer than Brazil’s average of 72 for men and 79 for women.

While interventions in Curitiba proved successful, some cities’ attempts to curb environmental hazards have fallen short. New Delhi, India, introduced a car ban to reduce pollution in 2015, but it continues to have the world’s most polluted air. India, which has a majority of the most polluted cities in the world, also has the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases.Beijing simply plans to alert its citizens when the air becomes dangerous, although a prior ban on transportation wielded immediate results. Back in September, the city banned half of its 5 million registered cars from the streets and shut hundreds of factories for two weeks prior to hosting a military parade. City skies quickly turned from blue to a hazy gray once the ban was lifted. The Chinese capital issued a red alert in December after air quality levels showed pollutants were well beyond the safe average for cities. Outdoor pollution accounts for roughly 1.6 million deaths every year in China, where much of the hazardous smog is caused by industrial pollution and burning coal.“A healthy environment underpins a healthy population,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. “If countries do not take actions to make environments where people live and work healthy, millions will continue to become ill and die too young.”


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