Pollution and health: a progress update

Linda Rider

Table of Contents

Summary

The Lancet Commission on pollution and health reported that pollution was responsible for 9 million premature deaths in 2015, making it the world’s largest environmental risk factor for disease and premature death. We have now updated this estimate using data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuriaes, and Risk Factors Study 2019. We find that pollution remains responsible for approximately 9 million deaths per year, corresponding to one in six deaths worldwide. Reductions have occurred in the number of deaths attributable to the types of pollution associated with extreme poverty. 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). Deaths from these modern pollution risk factors, which are the unintended consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation, have risen by 7% since 2015 and by over 66% since 2000. Despite ongoing efforts by UN agencies, committed groups, committed individuals, and some national governments (mostly in high-income countries), little real progress against pollution can be identified overall, particularly in the low-income and middle-income countries, where pollution is most severe. Urgent attention is needed to control pollution and prevent pollution-related disease, with an emphasis on air pollution and lead poisoning, and a stronger focus on hazardous chemical pollution. Pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss are closely linked. Successful control of these conjoined threats requires a globally supported, formal science–policy interface to inform intervention, influence research, and guide funding. Pollution has typically been viewed as a local issue to be addressed through subnational and national regulation or, occasionally, using regional policy in higher-income countries. Now, however, it is increasingly clear that pollution is a planetary threat, and that its drivers, its dispersion, and its effects on health transcend local boundaries and demand a global response. Global action on all major modern pollutants is needed. Global efforts can synergise with other global environmental policy programmes, especially as a large-scale, rapid transition away from all fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy is an effective strategy for preventing pollution while also slowing down climate change, and thus achieves a double benefit for planetary health.

Commission findings on pollution and health

Pollution— ie, unwanted waste of human origin released to air, land, water, and the ocean without regard for cost or consequence—is an existential threat to human health and planetary health, and jeopardises the sustainability of modern societies. Pollution includes contamination of air by fine particulate matter (PM2·5); ozone; oxides of sulphur and nitrogen; freshwater pollution; contamination of the ocean by mercury, nitrogen, phosphorus, plastic, and petroleum waste; and poisoning of the land by lead, mercury, pesticides, industrial chemicals, electronic waste, and radioactive waste.

The 2017 Lancet Commission on pollution and health, which used data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study (GBD) 2015, found that pollution was responsible for an estimated 9 million deaths (16% of all deaths globally) and for economic losses totalling US$ 4·6 trillion (6·2% of global economic output) in 2015.

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The Lancet Commission on pollution and health.