Friday, October 20, 2017

Our Polluted Planet

 Study finds toxic air, water, soils and workplaces kill at least 9 million people every year. The study warns the crisis “threatens the continuing survival of human societies”. The report was produced by more than 40 researchers from governments and universities across the globe and was funded by the UN, the EU and the US.

 The true total could be millions higher because the impact of many pollutants is poorly understood. 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 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. Low-income and rapidly industrialising countries are worst affected, suffering 92% of pollution-related deaths, with Somalia suffering the highest rate of pollution deaths. India, where both traditional and modern pollution are severe, has by far the largest number of pollution deaths at 2.5m. China is second with 1.8m and Russia and the US are also in the top 10.

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. In terms of workplace-pollution related deaths, the UK, Japan and Germany all appear in the top 10. 

“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. “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 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. 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.

The researchers estimated the welfare losses from pollution at $4.6 trillion 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. The next biggest killer was pollution of water, often with sewage, which is linked to 1.8m deaths as a result of gastrointestinal diseases and parasitic infections. Workplace pollution, including exposure to toxins, carcinogens and secondhand tobacco smoke, resulted in 800,000 deaths from diseases including pneumoconiosis in coal workers and bladder cancer in dye workers. Lead pollution, the one metal for which some data is available, was linked to 500,000 deaths a year.

“This is an immensely important piece of work highlighting the impact that environmental pollution has on death and disease,” said Dr Maria Neira, the WHO director of public health and the environment. “This is an unacceptable loss of lives and human development potential.”

The editor-in-chief of the Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, and the executive editor, Dr Pamela Das, said: “No country is unaffected by pollution. Human activities, including industrialisation, urbanisation, and globalisation, are all drivers of pollution. We hope the commission findings will persuade leaders at the national, state, provincial and city levels to make pollution a priority. Current and future generations deserve a pollution-free world.”



Landrigan said his biggest concern was the unknown impact of the hundreds of industrial chemicals and pesticides already widely dispersed around the world: “I worry we have created a situation where people are exposed to chemicals that are eroding intelligence or impairing reproduction or weakening their immune system, but we have not yet been smart enough to make the connection between the exposure and the outcome, because it is subtle.” On Wednesday, a horrific plunge in the abundance of vital insects was reported, with pesticides a possible cause.
“Pollution has not received nearly as much attention as climate change, or Aids or malaria – it is the most underrated health problem in the world,” he said.

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