That translates to approximately “nine million premature deaths in 2015” according to new research produced by The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. This adds up to 16% of all deaths worldwide, killing three times more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.
The report affirms previous studies linking a range of cancers, lung diseases and heart diseases to environmental pollution. Those studies looked at populations exposed to pollutants and compared them to those who were not exposed. All concluded that pollution can be an important cause of diseases, many of them potentially fatal.
Pollution has a greater impact on poorer societies
Pollution has a disproportionately worse effect on lower income societies, due to less access to environmental friendly technology. It's discovered that 92% of deaths occurred in low and middle-income countries with many deaths occurring in minority communities.
Despite a disparity in pollution between high-income and low- and middle-income countries, the study states that “no country is unaffected.”
On why lower income countries are more affected, Philip Landrigan, Professor of Environmental Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and lead author of The Lancet study remarked that “many of those countries are rapidly industrialising. But, they have weak environmental agencies. They're galloping ahead with industrialisation without paying attention to the consequences.”
Nonetheless, developed countries such as Japan and the United States are still responsible for pollution arising from fossil fuel combustion and chemical emissions.
Death is in the air we breatheAmongst the varying sources of pollution, air contamination was found to be the single largest contributor to mortality, causing approximately 6.5 million deaths in 2015. Air pollution can be caused by smoke emissions from vehicles and factories, which need to be addressed urgently.
Water pollution was the next biggest cause, responsible for up to 1.8 million deaths. Occupational sources of pollution contribute up to 0.8 million deaths.
Other important causes of pollution included exposure to chemicals and unclean water sources. Most of these factors could be resolved by ensuring that water filtration systems are available in most areas and that people implement appropriate hygiene practices.
According to the researchers of the study, the pollution crisis represents a “profound and pervasive threat”, which if not controlled appropriately, can continue to cause a large number of deaths.
Pollution smokes up bills in hospital budgetsThe report also stated that “the health-related costs of pollution are hidden in hospital budgets.”
To explain this, a statistic stated that pollution causes up to 15 times more deaths compared to forms of violence such as wars. Most of the deaths caused by pollution are non-communicable conditions, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and asthma. Other diseases include to disabling neurological conditions such as developmental defects and strokes.
Yet, these causes are often missed out in medical practice.
“Say a person comes into the hospital with cardiac arrhythmia. Nobody makes the connection that it happened on a day when air pollution was extremely high,” says Dr Landrigan, “Rates of heart disease and stroke are kicked up by air pollution.”
He added that arsenic in water sources can also increase the risk of certain types of cancer, but the connection is not immediate.
However, the industry is unwilling to make changes as compared to, for instance, putting filters on smokestacks, “the health costs to people over many years of exposure to pollution is less obvious.”
Mental health not excluded from this
In a study published in Health & Place, researchers from the University of Washington have found that air pollution is also associated with psychological distress. The study revealed that with a higher level of particulates in the air, the stronger effect it has on mental health.
"The effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health and lung diseases like asthma are well established; but, this area of brain health is a newer area of research," asserted assistant professor of epidemiology, Anjum Hajat.
The fine particulate matter produced by car engines, power plants fuelled by coal or natural gas, fireplaces and wood stoves, are easily inhaled. With the size of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, the particulates can be absorbed into the bloodstream, which is considered as a greater risk than larger particles.
When broken down by race and gender, the level of distress among black men in high pollution areas is 34% greater than white men, and 55% greater than Latino men. White women, in addition, has a substantial increase in distress of about 39%, as pollution level rise.
However, the exact reason for air pollution affecting mental health among specific populations is not known, expressed Victoria Sass, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology. Hence, the need for further research.
Air pollution is a health problem with clear, functional solution. Even so, “it requires the political will to continue to regulate air quality”, iterated Sass.
The fight against pollution is urgent, but winnableInvestments in pollution control, such as the Clean Air Act implementation in 1970 in the US, have resulted in observable financial benefit. This can be attributed to the greater productivity of individuals in better health.
The study suggests creating a Global Pollution Observatory to track global progress towards tackling pollution. This way, experts in more developed countries can provide technical assistance to poorer countries to develop and implement health and pollution action plans through actions such as reporting statistics on premature deaths by pollution risk factor.
“Pollution is much more than an environmental challenge – it is a profound and pervasive threat that affects many aspects of human health and well-being. It deserves the full attention of international leaders, civil society, health professionals and people around the world.
“This is a winnable battle,” concludes Dr Landrigan. MIMS
[Editor's Note: This article has been updated on 6/11/2017.]
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