UNITED KINGDOM – Pollution caused one in six deaths worldwide in 2019, a new study has revealed — more than the annual global tolls for war, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs or alcohol.
According to the study, published by the Lancet Commission on pollution and health, pollution kills 9 million people each year, nearly three-quarters of whom are killed by harmful air.
The study reveals that deaths from air pollution and toxic chemical pollution have increased by 66% in the last two decades, owing to uncontrolled urbanization, population growth, and reliance on fossil fuels.
Richard Fuller, the report’s lead author, said in an interview that “a lack of attention” accounts for why this grim tally continues unabated.
“There’s not much of an outcry around pollution … even though, clearly, 9 million people dying a year is an enormous issue to be concerned about,” he said.
The study, which used data from the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors in 2019, discovered that air pollution is responsible for the vast majority of premature deaths, accounting for 6.7 million.
Air and water pollution tops death causes
Water pollution killed 1.4 million people, while lead poisoning killed nearly a million. The report is an update of a similar analysis conducted by Fuller and his colleagues in 2015, which also identified air and water pollution as the leading causes.
While the total number of pollution-related deaths has remained constant over the last five years, the sources of death have shifted in some areas.
Historically, the majority of pollution deaths were caused by fine particles of soot released from indoor stoves burning wood or dung.
More than a million people have died as a result of contaminated water and untreated sewage.
According to Fuller, this source of pollution has decreased in recent years as many Chinese and Indian households have switched to gas cooking.
However, this was the report’s only piece of good news. Instead of traditional pollutants, fossil fuel combustion, automobile combustion, and toxic chemical pollution are now posing a greater health risk in developing countries.
In 2019, outdoor air pollution and toxic chemicals killed more people than indoor air pollution and water contamination in more than half of the world’s countries and nations.
In China, for example, more than 2 million people died from industrial and chemical pollution, compared to 367,000 from traditional sources.
India tops the list
According to the study, India had the highest number of air pollution-related deaths in 2019, with more than 1.6 million people killed in the country of 1.3 billion people.
Pollution levels in nearly all of India exceed World Health Organization guidelines, forcing millions to breathe toxic air every day, according to the report.
According to the monitoring network IQAir, six of the world’s ten most polluted cities were in India last year.
According to a recent study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, poor air quality could reduce the life expectancy of hundreds of millions of Indians by up to nine years.
The Indian government announced a national clean air campaign in 2019, with the goal of reducing particulate pollution by up to 30% by 2024.
Specific plans were developed for each city; in Delhi, these plans included measures to reduce road traffic, burn-offs, and road dust, as well as to encourage the use of cleaner fuels.
Meanwhile, the study found that deaths from traditional pollution, such as unsafe water or poor sanitation practices, have decreased in Africa, owing largely to improvements in sanitation, water quality, and antibiotics.
However, as economic growth drives greater urbanization in many African countries, the number of air pollution deaths is on the rise.
The Lancet committee urged action with eight recommendations, including increased government funding for pollution control, improved pollution data collection, and an independent global body overseeing pollution similar to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.