Environmental Pollution Deadlier Than AIDS, Tuberculosis And Malaria Combined

Environmental Pollution Deadlier Than AIDS, Tuberculosis And Malaria Combined

Let's clear the air: A ban on the sale of firecrackers in Delhi didn't do much to improve the region's air quality levels. In fact, post Diwali, Delhi recorded its lowest levels of air quality since 2012 with pollution levels touching hazardous levels. Sadly, Delhi is not alone.

According to the findings of a study published in The Lancet, pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths, or 16 percent of all deaths worldwide in 2015. The study says polluted air and water kill more people annually than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and more people than obesity, alcohol, road accidents, and all wars and other forms of violence.

The most marked increases in water and air pollution are found in rapidly developing and industrialising low- and middle-income countries where industry, mining, electricity generation, mechanised agriculture and petroleum-powered vehicles all contribute to ambient air pollution, chemical pollution and soil pollution.

India tops the list of countries where the largest increases in the number of pollution-related deaths were seen; in 2015, 2.5 million pollution-related deaths or one in every four premature deaths in the country were caused by pollution. China comes second with 1.8 millions deaths.

 Number of deaths per 100 000 people that are attributable to all forms of pollution, 2015 Image: The Lancet

Number of deaths per 100 000 people that are attributable to all forms of pollution, 2015 Image: The Lancet

Pollution is more than an environmental challenge. Not only is it detrimental to human health and well-being, it has immense financial implications: the financial cost of death, sickness and welfare attributed to pollution amount to about $4.6 trillion in yearly losses, which is equivalent to about 6.2 percent of the world's economy.

Although it can have serious and even fatal consequences on human health, pollution-related illnesses are underestimated in calculations of the global burden of disease. The study has found strong correlations between PM2·5 pollution and cardiovascular and pulmonary disease and links between air pollution and a variety of diseases including hypertension, diabetes, obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Children are especially vulnerable to pollution-related disease and the study linked pollution to developmental disorders and birth defects in young children. Unsafe water and substandard sanitation are also attributed to over 300,000 deaths per year, which often happens because of gastrointestinal diseases.

Unfortunately, despite the risks posed by pollution to the economy and human and environmental health, woefully little is being done to check pollution and disease-mitigation strategies rarely include interventions against pollution.

But, the good news, says the study, is that the experiences of high- and middle-income countries show that pollution control is possible with favourable impacts on air and water quality, human health, environment and liveability of cities. Investment in pollution mitigation can also have positive economic impacts in the form of enhanced economic productivity and reduced healthcare costs which, in middle-income countries that are heavily polluted and rapidly developing, account for 7 percent of the annual health spending.