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Pollution kills 9 million people a year: study

May 18, 2022

The latest figures put pollution on par with smoking in terms of global deaths. In comparison, COVID-19 killed about 6.7 million people globally since the pandemic began.

Factories in New Jersey release smoke into the sky
Modern types of pollution are rising in most countries across the worldImage: Tayfun Coskun/AA/picture alliance

An estimated 9 million people die from pollution of all types each year, according to a study of global mortality and pollution levels published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal.

A spike in toxic lead poisoning and worsening air pollution countered the modest progress made in tackling pollution elsewhere. This has kept global deaths from environmental contamination at 9 million per year since 2015, according to scientists analyzing 2019 data from the Global Burden of Disease, which is an ongoing study by the University of Washington that assesses overall pollution exposure.

Pollution is an "existential threat to human health and planetary health, and jeopardizes the sustainability of modern societies," the study found, adding that its impact on global health remains "much greater than that of war, terrorism, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, drugs and alcohol". 

"We're sitting in the stew pot and slowly burning," said Richard Fuller, a study co-author and head of Pure Earth, a global nonprofit. But unlike climate change, malaria or HIV, "we haven't given (environmental pollution) much focus."

Oil pollution from ships

The latest figures put pollution on par with smoking in terms of global deaths. In comparison, COVID-19 has killed over 6 million people globally since the pandemic began.

Deaths from traditional pollutants decline

The new analysis delves deeper into the causes of pollution, separating traditional contaminants like indoor smoke or sewage, from modern pollutants, which include industrial air pollution and toxic chemicals. 

While deaths from traditional pollutants are declining globally, they remain an issue in Africa. Chad, the Central African Republic and Niger were the three countries found to have the most pollution-related deaths, mostly attributed to tainted water, soil and noxious indoor air.

Moves to cut indoor air pollution and improve sanitation have helped bring deaths down by two-thirds in Ethiopia and Nigeria between 2000 and 2019.

India’s shift away from wood-burning stoves to gas stove connections has also improved mortality rates.

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Modern pollutants on the rise

The study found out that deaths caused by exposure to modern pollutants like heavy metals, agrochemicals and fossil fuel emissions, were "just skyrocketing" and had spiked 66% since 2000. The trend was especially alarming in developing countries.

While outdoor air pollution was down in some major capital cities, including Bangkok, China and Mexico City, smaller cities saw pollution levels climbing.

Modern types of pollution fell in the United States, the European Union and Ethiopia between 2000 and 2019. The authors of the study could not explain Ethiopia’s numbers and added that it may be a reporting issue. 

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The study authors put forth eight recommendations to reduce pollution deaths, stressing the need for better monitoring, better reporting and stronger government regulation of industry and cars.

"We absolutely know how to solve each one of those problems," Fuller said. "What's missing is political will."

see/kb (Reuters, AP, AFP)