Pollution—whether it comes from a car’s tailpipe, a coal-fired power plant, or a toxic waste dump—claimed more than eight million lives around the world in 2017, fully 15 percent of all deaths. Roughly five million deaths are attributed to polluted air, mostly from outdoor sources in urban and industrialized areas. That’s according to a new report published by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, a coalition of environmental and health institutions and agencies.
On top of mass mortality, pollution in 2017 resulted in the equivalent of 275 million years of Disability-Adjusted Life Years, a measure of the years that individuals lose to illness, disability, or premature death. But the pollution epidemic may be even worse than it sounds. The study’s primary data set omits several common toxins: plastics, pesticides, chemicals that act as endocrine disruptors, mercury, and pharmaceutical wastes. Occupational hazards, which are specifically related to the work environment, cause about 800,000 deaths through “occupational carcinogens, second-hand smoke, particulates, gases, and fumes.”
But that figure is a vast undercount, because the occupational pollution data excludes workers in the informal economy, like casual farm laborers, domestic workers, and trash pickers. Informal sectors like small-scale artisanal gold-mining employ millions of people, mostly in Africa, and expose them constantly to illness caused by mercury vapors.
This health burden is concentrated in low and middle-income countries. But one of the top countries for pollution-related death is among the richest: the United States ranks number seven, just behind Bangladesh, and just ahead of Russia and Ethiopia with some 197,000 deaths due to pollution. In the US the map of pollution death is also a reflection of social inequality. Black and Latinx populations suffer disproportionately from pollution impacts, especially air pollution, though they individually contribute to very little of it. Communities of color, immigrant workers, and other vulnerable populations often have little recourse when corporations want to heap toxins on their neighborhoods or force them to work in hazardous environments.
“Many people may assume that because the United States is a wealthy, developed country, that we've somehow moved past the point of thousands of deaths caused by pollution,” Bill Magavern, policy director of the California Clean Air Coalition, tells The Progressive in an interview. But that hasn’t happened because corporations have systematically weakened or co-opted agencies through “regulatory capture.” Magavern says, “Low-income communities of color are suffering from a historic and ongoing discrimination which subjects them to disproportionate burdens from pollution, while at the same time they have the fewest resources with which to address the impacts of that pollution”.
Climate change is exacerbating the problem of dirty air. A 2009 study on the effects of global warming estimated that “as many as 20,000 air-pollution related deaths may occur worldwide each year with each one degree Celsius increase.” Respiratory diseases like childhood asthma, which already costs an estimated $23,573 per case, will worsen. In addition to increased frequency and severity of climate-related disasters like flooding, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires, projected long-term ripple effects include rising rates of infectious diseases such as malaria, and aggravate antibiotic resistance, raising the risk of public health crises. Rising temperatures and ocean acidification could alter the chemical composition of some pollutants.