NEW DELHI (AP) — Environmental pollution, ranging from filthy air to contaminated water, is killing more people every year than all war and violence in the world. More than smoking, hunger or natural disasters. More than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.
One out of every six premature deaths in the world in 2015 — about 9 million — could be attributed to disease from toxic exposure, according to a major study released in the Lancet medical journal.
The financial cost from pollution-related death, sickness and welfare is equally massive, the report says, costing some $4.6 trillion in annual losses — or about 6.2 percent of the global economy.
“There’s been a lot of study of pollution, but it’s never received the resources or level of attention as, say, AIDS or climate change,” said epidemiologist Philip Landrigan, dean of global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and the lead author of the report.
The report marks the first attempt to pull together data on disease and death caused by all forms of pollution combined.
“Pollution is a massive problem that people aren’t seeing because they’re looking at scattered bits of it,” Landrigan said.
Experts say the 9 million premature deaths the study found was just a partial estimate, and that the number of people killed by pollution is undoubtedly higher and will be quantified once more research is done and new methods of assessing harmful impacts are developed.
The two-year project, which relied on data from researchers in more than 130 countries documenting the causes of disease and premature deaths in recent decades, found that poor air quality was the most significant pollution-related killer. That includes both outdoor pollution tainted by mercury, arsenic and other harmful particulates, and household air dirtied by the burning of wood, dung and other organic materials.
The result: An estimated 6.5 million deaths in 2015 from heart disease, strokes, lung cancer and other respiratory problems.
Water pollution, which includes everything from unsafe sanitation to contaminated drinking water, accounted for an additional 1.8 million annual deaths from gastrointestinal diseases and other infections, researchers found.
Pollution in the workplace also took a heavy toll on some of the world’s poorest workers. From bladder cancer in dye workers to the lung disease pneumoconiosis in coal miners, researchers found that occupational exposure to carcinogens and toxins was linked to about 800,000 deaths annually.
“In the West we got the lead out of the gasoline, so we thought lead was handled,” said Richard Fuller, head of the global toxic watchdog Pure Earth.
“We got rid of the burning rivers, cleaned up the worst of the toxic sites. And then all of those discussions went into the background” just as industry began booming in developing nations, said Fuller, one of the 47 scientists, policymakers and public health experts who contributed to the report.
Asia and Africa are the regions putting the most people at risk, the study found, while India tops the list of individual countries.
One out of every four premature deaths in India in 2015, or some 2.5 million, was attributed to pollution. China’s environment was the second deadliest, with more than 1.8 million premature deaths, or one in five, blamed on pollution-related illness, the report found.
Several other countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, North Korea, South Sudan and Haiti also see nearly a fifth of their premature deaths caused by pollution.
Still, many poorer countries have yet to make pollution control a priority, experts say. India has taken some recent actions, such as tightening vehicle and factory emission standards and occasionally limiting the number of cars on New Delhi’s roads. But they have done little about crop burning, garbage fires, construction dust or rampant use of the dirtiest fossil fuels.
Even the conservative estimate of 9 million pollution-related deaths is one-and-a-half times higher than the number of people killed by smoking, three times the number killed by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, more than six times the number killed in road accidents, and 15 times the number killed in war or other forms of violence, according to tallies from the Global Burden of Disease.
It is most often the world’s poorest who suffer, the study found. The vast majority of pollution-related deaths — 92 percent — occur in low- or middle-income countries, where policymakers are chiefly concerned with developing their economies, lifting people out of poverty and building basic infrastructure.
Environmental regulations in those countries tend to be weaker, and industries lean on outdated technologies and dirtier fuels.
In wealthier countries where overall pollution is not as rampant, it is still the poorest communities that are more often exposed, the report says.
“What people don’t realize,” Fuller said, “is that pollution does damage to economies. People who are sick or dead cannot contribute to the economy. They need to be looked after” — which is also costly.
This report includes material from the Washington Post.