Air pollution in China

Pollution killed nine million people in 2019, study says

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The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health has found that one in six people died in 2019 as a result of pollution - a number that has remained unchanged since 2015.

Nine million people died in 2019 because of pollution, new study has revealed, surpassing the annual global tolls for war, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs and alcohol.

The research – published as an update to the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health – has identified pollution as the largest environmental risk factor for disease and premature death, responsible for 16 per cent of all deaths globally. Overall, air, chemical and water pollution accounted for one in six deaths worldwide.

Despite the well-documented effects of pollution on mortality rates, little has been done to address this public health crisis, with public attention and funding only seeing a minimal increase in the last four years.

Since the commission’s last analysis in 2015, the number of deaths from pollution sources associated with extreme poverty – such as unclean water and household air pollution – have decreased. However, these reductions are offset by an increase in the number of deaths related to outdoor air pollution and toxic chemicals, which are often associated with industrial pollution.

According to the study, deaths caused by air pollution and toxic chemical pollution increased by 66 per cent over the past two decades, fueled by uncontrolled urbanisation, population growth and a dependence on fossil fuels

The health impacts of pollution remain enormous and low and middle-income countries bear the brunt of this burden,” said Richard Fuller, lead author of the report. “Despite its enormous health, social and economic impacts, pollution prevention is largely overlooked in the international development agenda.”

To reach these conclusions, the research team analysed data from the 2019 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, as well as an assessment of trends since 2000.

The findings showed that air pollution alone remains responsible for the greatest number of deaths at 6.67 million worldwide. Lead contributed 900,000 premature deaths, followed by toxic occupational hazards at 870,000 deaths. Over 90 per cent of these deaths occurred in low and middle-income countries.

“Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health and jeopardises the sustainability of modern societies,” said co-author Professor Philip Landrigan.

The decline in deaths from traditional pollution in the last two decades is most evident in Africa, resulting from improvements in water supply and sanitation, better healthcare access, and cleaner fuels. By contrast, the global increase in deaths from exposure to industrial pollution is particularly acute in Southeast Asia, where rising levels of industrial pollution are combined with ageing populations and increasing numbers of people exposed.

India recorded the largest number of air pollution-related deaths in 2019, with more than 1.6 million people killed in the nation of 1.3 billion, according to the study.

In addition to improving health and prosperity, preventing pollution also contributes to slowing down climate change and driving economic growth. For this reason, the report called for “a massive, rapid transition” away from all fossil fuels towards clean and renewable energy sources.

The authors of the study conclude with eight recommendations to address the global crisis. These include calls for an independent, intergovernmental panel on pollution, alongside increased funding for pollution control from governments, independent and philanthropic donors, and improved pollution monitoring and data collection. 

“It is clear that pollution is a planetary threat and that its drivers, dispersion and health impacts transcend local boundaries and demand a global response,” said co-author Rachael Kupta, stressing the need for global measures to address the effects of all major modern pollutants.

As well as improving global health, tackling this problem will also avoid the economic losses caused by pollution-related excess deaths, which totalled an estimated $4.6tn (£3.7tn) in 2019 - approximately 6.2 per cent of global economic output. 

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