Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world, accounting for three times more deaths in 2015 than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, according to a sweeping global study published Friday in The Lancet medical journal.
The report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health blames pollution for an estimated 9 million premature deaths, about 15 times more than all wars and other forms of violence. It concludes that pollution “endangers the stability of the Earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies.”
More than 40 researchers from governments and universities worldwide worked on the study funded by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States. The Lancet is a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal.
More: The most polluted city is? Hint: It’s not in China
More: California fires produced as much pollution in 2 days as all the state’s cars do in a year
More: China’s air pollution is causing its residents to die three years early
Pollution disproportionately kills the poor and the vulnerable, the report found. Nearly 92% of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries.
India leads the world in highest pollution-related deaths at 2.5 million, or 24.5% of all deaths in the country. China is second with 1.8 million, or 19.5%, and Pakistan third with 311,000 deaths, or 21.9%.
When broken down to most pollution-related deaths per 100,000 population, Somalia leads the list, with the Central African Republic second and Chad third.
Britain, Japan and Germany landed in the top 10 for workplace pollution-related deaths.
Pollution-related diseases take a big bite out of health care costs, the report found. Such diseases are responsible for 1% to 7% of annual health spending in high-income countries and for up to 7% of health spending in middle-income countries that are heavily polluted and rapidly developing.
“The vast majority of the pollution deaths occur in poorer nations and in some, such as India, Chad and Madagascar, pollution causes a quarter of all deaths,” according to the report. “The international researchers said this burden is a hugely expensive drag on developing economies.”
Philip Landrigan, co-leader of the commission, said the nine million deaths a year from pollution is “pushing the envelope on the amount of pollution the Earth can carry,” The Guardian reported.
Air pollution deaths in Southeast Asia are on track to double by 2050, he added.
The commission report combined data from the World Health Organization and other sources to determine that air pollution is the biggest killer, leading to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other illnesses. Outdoor air pollution, caused by vehicles and industry, is blamed for 4.5 million deaths annually while indoor air pollution, from wood and dung stoves, is linked to 2.9 million deaths.
Water pollution, often contaminated by sewage, is linked to 1.8 million deaths from gastrointestinal diseases and parasitic infections. Another 800,000 deaths are tied to workplace pollution, including exposure to toxins, carcinogens and secondhand tobacco smoke, coal-related diseases and bladder cancer in dye workers.
Amid the gloom, the report highlights some good news — much of the pollution can be eliminated. It noted that high-income and some middle-income countries have produced laws and regulations mandating clean air and clean water, established chemical safety policies and curbed the most flagrant forms of pollution.
“Their air and water are now cleaner, the blood lead concentrations of their children have decreased by more than 90%, their rivers no longer catch fire, their worst hazardous waste sites have been remediated, and many of their cities are less polluted and more livable,” according to the report. “Health has improved and people in these countries are living longer.”
The report also finds that countries, even poor ones, do not have to choose between economic growth and pollution.
“The claim that pollution control stifles economic growth and that poor countries must pass through a phase of pollution and disease on the road to prosperity has repeatedly been proven to be untrue,” the study said.
To tackle the pollution problem, the study offers six recommendations, including making pollution prevention a “high priority nationally and internationally” and integrating it into country and city planning processes.
It also recommends increasing and focusing the funding and the international technical support dedicated to pollution control and establishing systems to monitor pollution and its effects on health.