Environmental pollution is killing more people every year than smoking, hunger or natural disasters, according to a major study released in The Lancet medical journal on Thursday.
One in every six premature deaths worldwide in 2015, could be attributed to diseases caused by toxins in air or water, the study says.
Of the 9 million people killed prematurely by pollution, air pollution was the main cause of deaths, responsible for 6.5 million of the fatalities, followed by water pollution, which killed 1.8 million.
The estimate of 9 million premature deaths, considered conservative by the authors, is one and a half times higher than the number of people killed by smoking, and three times the death toll from AIDS, turberculosis and malaria combined. It is also 15 times the number of people killed in war or other forms of violence.
The report also attributed massive costs to pollution-related death, sickness and welfare, estimating the costs at some $4.6 trillion (€3.89 trillion) in annual losses — or about 6.2 percent of the global economy.
"What people don't realize is that pollution does damage to economies. People who are sick or dead cannot contribute to the economy. They need to looked after," said one of the study's authors, Richard Fuller, who is head of the global pollution watchdog Pure Earth.
"There is this myth that finance ministers still live by: that you have to let industry pollute or else you won't develop. It just isn't true," he said.
According to the study, the financial burden also hits poorer countries hardest, with low-income countries paying 8.3 percent of their GNP to tackle the harm caused by pollution, as compared with 4.5 percent in richer countries.
'Worrying developments in US'
The Lancet editors Pamela Das and Richard Horton said the report came at a "worrisome time, when the US government's Environmental Protection Agency, headed by Scott Pruitt, is undermining established environmental regulations."
Pruitt announced this month that the US, a major producer of air pollution and greenhouse gases, would be pulling out of former President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan.
The plan, which aimed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production, was expected by the EPA to also reduce smog and soot in the air by 25 percent and thus avoid thousands of premature deaths through asthma and other lung conditions.
Das and Horton said the latest findings should serve as a "call to action."
"Pollution is a winnable battle ... Current and future generations deserve a pollution-free world," they said.
tj/msh (AFP, Reuters, AP)