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One in Six Global Deaths Linked to Pollution

A new report suggests that pollution led to the deaths of nine million people in 2015

Smog and other types of pollution were linked to nine million deaths in 2015 by a new report (Polly Clip / Wikimedia)
smithsonian.com

In 2015, about one in six of the deaths around the world were linked to pollution of some kind, a new report has found.

"Pollution is much more than an environmental challenge—it is a profound and pervasive threat that affects many aspects of human health and wellbeing," Philip Landrigan, a global health researcher with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says in a statement. The new report emerged from a commission Landrigan co-led for the medical journal The Lancet.

The commission spent two years compiling data from past reports of the World Health Organization and other scientific research bodies about various types of pollution and their impact on exposed populations in 130 countries, reports Brady Dennis for the Washington Post. Overall, they found that some nine million deaths in 2015 were connected to pollution—a killer that far surpassed deaths from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined.

Of the many types of pollution, poor air quality rose to the top of the list. Responsible for 6.5 million deaths in 2015, air pollution causes respiratory problems and a range of other illnesses, including lung cancer, strokes and heart disease. Water pollution comes in second on the list, to blame for 1.8 million deaths from infections and gastrointestinal issues. Meanwhile, 800,000 people died from exposure to pollution hazards in the workplace.

As staggering as they are, the deaths cataloged in the report are likely low estimates, its authors warn. Many of the effects that pollution can have on human health are not yet fully understood.

Though pollution-related deaths touched every part of the world, the report found an extreme geographic and economic imbalance, writes Damian Carrington​ of the Guardian. About 92 percent of the deaths studied occurred in low-income and industrializing countries, where environmental regulations are often lax or almost non-existent.

"Pollution, poverty, poor health, and social injustice are deeply intertwined," report co-author Karti Sandilya, an adviser with Pure Earth USA, says in a statement.

Beyond a tragic human cost, the report's authors also found that the economic burden placed on the world by pollution-related illness and death is high, approximately $4.6 trillion in total, or equivalent to just over 6 percent of the world's gross domestic product. But there are some good signs in the report, writes Megan Thielking of STAT, with some types of pollution-related death—including household air and sanitation—on the decline.

The report's authors stress that developed countries and charitable foundations must step in to help developing countries control pollution and reduce this death toll. "This Lancet Commission should inform policy makers and serve as a timely call to action," the journal's top editors wrote in a second article in The Lancet. "Pollution is a winnable battle."

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