A new study by a leading medical journal finds that deaths from pollution have increased to 9 million people each year — roughly one of six annual deaths worldwide. Air pollution, contaminated water and toxic chemical exposure are the main drivers of the staggering death toll, according to the report released Tuesday by the Lancet Planetary Health†
The deadly consequences of pollution are concentrated in developing countries, with 90% of the deaths it causes in low- and middle-income countries.
Richard Fuller, the report’s lead author and CEO of the anti-pollution nonprofit Pure Earth, told the Washington Post that pollution deserves more public attention. “There’s not much of an outcry around pollution … even though, clearly, 9 million people dying a year is an enormous issue to be concerned about,” he said.
Air pollution, which is mainly caused by burning the same fossil fuels that cause climate change, such as oil, coal and natural gas, is responsible for the majority of the deaths, approximately 6.7 million per year. Water pollution caused 1.4 million deaths and lead poisoning caused almost one million. The study used 2019 data from Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factorsa project of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a public health research organization based at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Despite generally improving air and water quality in wealthy countries such as the United States, the global pollution picture is much grimmer. “Deaths from these modern pollution risk factors, which are the unintended consequence of industrialization and urbanisation, have risen by 7% since 2015 and by over 66% since 2000,” the Lancet Planetary Health article, which was written by a large team of scientists , stated.
As developing countries grow more prosperous, the type of pollution-related death changes. For instance, as homes get plumbing, electricity, gas ovens and central heating, there are fewer people exposed to contaminated drinking water and air pollution from indoor cookstoves. But the fossil fuels burned to cook and to produce heat and electricity create more air pollution and industrializing economies see more toxic chemicals leaching into soil and water from factories.
“Reductions have occurred in the number of deaths attributable to the types of pollution associated with extreme poverty,” the report said. “However, these reductions in deaths from household air pollution and water pollution are offset by increased deaths attributable to ambient air pollution and toxic chemical pollution (ie, lead).”
For example, indoor air pollution and water contamination remain the leading environmental causes of death in Africa, while in China, those problems are far outpaced by outdoor air pollution and toxic chemical exposure.
But much of the pollution in developing countries comes from industrial processes — mining, refining, manufacturing — for products that go to consumers in large economies. November 2021 study in the journal Nature Communications found that consumption in the G-20 countries is responsible for air pollution that causes 2 million premature deaths annually.
Although air pollution may be less deadly in the United States, it is still prevalent. Earlier this year, the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air” report for 2022 found that more than 40% of Americans, over 137 million people, live in areas with failing grades for healthy levels of particle pollution or ground-level ozone, also known as smog.
Environmental experts say that a quick transition from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy will both reduce air and water pollution and slow global warming.
In the Lancet Planetary Health report, Fuller and his co-authors call for international air pollution monitoring systems and funding for pollution control projects.
“Pollution has been largely ignored, and it’s also been largely ignored in overseas development assistance and the support that we should be giving out there to countries to stop all this from happening,” Fuller told the Washington Post.