Damian Carrington Environment editor
Thursday 19 October 2017 23.30 BST
Pollution kills at least nine million people and costs trillions of dollars every year, according to the most comprehensive global analysis to date, which warns the crisis “threatens the continuing survival of human societies”.
Toxic air, water, soils and workplaces are responsible for the diseases that kill one in every six people around the world, the landmark report found, and the true total could be millions higher because the impact of many pollutants are poorly understood. The deaths attributed to pollution are triple those from Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
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. The international researchers said this burden is a hugely expensive drag on developing economies.
Rich nations still have work to do to tackle pollution: the US and Japan are in the top 10 for deaths from “modern” forms of pollution, ie fossil fuel-related air pollution and chemical pollution. But the scientists said that the big improvements that have been made in developed nations in recent decades show that beating pollution is a winnable battle if there is the political will.
“Pollution is one of the great existential challenges of the [human-dominated] Anthropocene era,” concluded the authors of the Commission on Pollution and Health, published in the Lancet on Friday. “Pollution endangers the stability of the Earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies.”
Prof Philip Landrigan, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, US, who co-led the commission, said: “We fear that with nine million deaths a year, we are pushing the envelope on the amount of pollution the Earth can carry.” For example, he said, air pollution deaths in south-east Asia are on track to double by 2050.
Landrigan said the scale of deaths from pollution had surprised the researchers and that two other “real shockers” stood out. First was how quickly modern pollution deaths were rising, while “traditional” pollution deaths – from contaminated water and wood cooking fires – were falling as development work bears fruit.
“Secondly, we hadn’t really got our minds around how much pollution is not counted in the present tally,” he said. “The current figure of nine million is almost certainly an underestimate, probably by several million.”
This is because scientists are still discovering links between pollution and ill health, such as the connection between air pollution and dementia, diabetes and kidney disease. Furthermore, lack of data on many toxic metals and chemicals could not be included in the new analysis.
The researchers estimated the welfare losses from pollution at $4.6tn a year, equivalent to more than 6% of global GDP. “Those costs are so massive they can drag down the economy of countries that are trying to get ahead,” said Landrigan. “We always hear ‘we can’t afford to clean up pollution’ – I say we can’t afford not to clean it up.”
The commission report combined data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and elsewhere and found air pollution was the biggest killer, leading to heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and other illnesses. Outdoor air pollution, largely from vehicles and industry, caused 4.5m deaths a year and indoor air pollution, from wood and dung stoves, caused 2.9m.