A landmark new study on the public health impacts of global pollution found that toxic air, water, and soil are responsible for the deaths of nine million people each year, more than the number that die from war, hunger, malaria, and AIDS — combined.
The study, published on Friday in the Lancet, warned that pollution is so dangerous it “threatens the continuing survival of human societies.” According to the study, which pulled data from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ongoing Global Burden of Disease project, pollution accounts for 16 percent of deaths worldwide — 15 times more than deaths from war and conflict, and three times more than deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.
“This is an immensely important piece of work highlighting the impact that environmental pollution has on death and disease,” Maria Neira, the WHO director of public health and the environment, told the Guardian. “This is an unacceptable loss of lives and human development potential.”
Most of these nine million deaths occur from pollution-related diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and lung-cancer. The majority occur in developing nations, where rapid industrialization combined with lax regulations translate into higher exposure to toxic air, water, and soil pollution for residents. But the study found that pollution-related deaths do occur in industrialized nations, with the United States and Japan topping the list for most “modern” pollution-related deaths, from things like fossil fuel-related and chemical pollution.
According to the study, outdoor air pollution from things like cars or industrial activity is responsible for some 4.5 million deaths each year, nearly half of all pollution-related deaths — a number that experts estimate will only increase in the coming years, with air pollution deaths in southeast Asia expected to double by 2050. Another 2.9 million deaths come from indoor air pollution, from things like wood-burning stoves, which are still used throughout the developing world for heat and cooking. Toxic water is responsible for another 1.8 million death each year; sewage-laced water, for instance, is often linked to illnesses like cholera or parasitic infections. Workplace pollution — prevalent in industrialized countries — accounts for some 800,000 deaths each year.
Researchers warned that nine million could be an underestimate of the true number of deaths due to pollution each year, as the link between pollution and certain diseases — like dementia or diabetes — is an area of emerging science. Researchers also pointed to the unknown impact of hundreds of widely-used chemicals and pesticides prevalent in the environment, which could increase the total number of pollution-related deaths.
According to the study, while sources of “traditional pollution” — like wood-burning stoves and toxic water — have declined in recent years, sources of “modern pollution” — largely defined as pollution from industry — has increased at a stunning rate.
The study also linked pollution deaths to lost economic output, finding that on average, pollution-related deaths resulted in a 6 percent hit to global GDP (a loss of $4.6 trillion each year). In developing countries, pollution-related deaths were linked to a 1.3 percent loss in national GDP, compared with a .5 percent loss in developed countries.
“What people don’t realize is that pollution does damage to economies,” Richard Fuller, head of the global pollution watchdog group Pure Earth, told the Associated Press. “People who are sick or dead cannot contribute to the economy.”
The report comes as the Trump administration looks to roll back a number of pollution-related regulations in the United States, from stricter limits on ozone pollution from industry to limits on toxic discharge allowed for coal companies. Before coming to the agency, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt sued the EPA to stop stricter regulations on the limits of allowable mercury and ozone from industry, and questioned the EPA’s science on the relationship between methane emissions from the oil and gas industry and air pollution.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is currently considering two Trump administration nominees to the EPA that would have an outsized-impact on the agency’s work regarding air and water pollution — William Wehrum, who is currently nominated to lead the EPA’s air and radiation office, and Michael Dourson, who is currently nominated to lead the EPA’s chemical and pesticides office. Wehrum has questioned the consensus view on climate science, while Dourson has spent years working with chemical companies to argue for less protective standards for chemical and toxic control.
But going back on pollution regulation will only worsen the public health threats faced by residents of developing and developed countries. According to the Lancet study, while sources of modern pollution have been increasing, the drop in traditional pollution shows that regulations and pollution controls can in fact have tangible public health and economic benefits.
“Now is not the time to go backwards in the U.S.,” Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator under the Obama administration, told the Guardian. “Environmental protection and a strong economy go hand in hand. We also need to help other countries, not only for the benefit it will bring them, but because pollution knows no boundaries.”