Pollution is killing 9 million people a year, a review has found, making it responsible for one in six of all deaths. Air pollution caused almost 75% of the 9 million pollution deaths. Toxic chemicals resulted in 1.8 million deaths, including 900,000 deaths from lead pollution, which is more than from HIV/Aids. Lead poisoning could significantly reduce intelligence across large populations.
The number of deaths from chemical pollutants was likely to be an underestimate, the scientists said, as only a small proportion of the 350,000 synthetic chemicals in use had been adequately tested for safety. The cocktail of chemical pollution that pervades the planet has passed the safe limit for the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends, researchers reported in January.
Unsafe water causes 1.4 million early deaths a year. More than 2 billion people still do not have access to clean drinking water.
Toxic air and contaminated water and soil “is an existential threat to human health and planetary health, and jeopardises the sustainability of modern societies”, the review concluded.
The researchers said pollution, the climate crisis and the destruction of wildlife and nature “are the key global environmental issues of our time. These issues are intricately linked and solutions to each will benefit the others. But we cannot continue to ignore pollution. We are going backwards.”
The death toll from pollution dwarfs that from road traffic deaths, HIV/Aids, malaria and TB combined, or from drug and alcohol misuse. The researchers calculated the economic impact of pollution deaths at $4.6tn (£3.7tn), about $9m a minute.
Prevention was largely overlooked in the international development agenda, the researchers said, with funding increasing only minimally since 2015.
Deaths from toxic air and chemicals have risen by 66% since 2000, driven by increased fossil fuel burning, rising population numbers and unplanned urbanisation. This rise was offset by improvements in the “ancient scourges” of water polluted by pathogens and poor sanitation and indoor smoke from cooking fires.
Prof Philip Landrigan, at Boston College in the US and a lead author of the analysis, said: “Pollution is still the largest existential threat to human and planetary health. Preventing pollution can also slow climate change – achieving a double benefit for planetary health – and our report calls for a massive, rapid transition away from all fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.”
More than 90% of pollution deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, such as India and Nigeria. While high-income countries, such as the US and members of the EU, had controlled the worst forms of pollution, the researchers said, few less affluent nations had been able to make pollution a priority.
“Pollution has typically been viewed as a local issue,” said Rachael Kupka, at Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), which includes the UN Environment Programme and the World Bank. “However, it is clear that pollution is a planetary threat. Global action on all major modern pollutants is needed.”
Pollution also crossed international borders, carried on winds or in food exports, said Richard Fuller, at GAHP in Switzerland, another lead author. “If we’re going to keep everyone safe, we need to help countries that have these toxic problems to stop the pollution at the source.”