Worsening outdoor air pollution and toxic lead poisoning have kept global deaths resulting from environmental contamination at an estimated 9 million per year since 2015, undermining modest progress made in tackling pollution elsewhere, a team of scientists reported.
Air pollution from industrial processes along with urbanization drove a 7% increase in pollution-related deaths from 2015 to 2019, according to the scientists’ analysis of data on global mortality and pollution levels.
Richard Fuller, a study co-author and head of the global nonprofit Pure Earth said that unlike climate change, malaria, or HIV, “we haven’t given (environmental pollution) much focus.”
An earlier version of the study published in 2017 also estimated the death toll from pollution at roughly 9 million per year — or about one of every six deaths worldwide — and the cost to the global economy has risen to $4.6 trillion per year.
Risks of pollution exposure
For their most recent study, the authors analyzed 2019 data from an ongoing study by the University of Washington that assesses overall pollution exposure and calculates mortality risk.
The new study focuses more specifically on the causes of pollution, separating traditional contaminants such as indoor smoking or sewage from more modern pollutants, like industrial air pollution and toxic chemicals.
Researchers concluded that deaths from traditional pollutants are declining globally, but they remain a major problem in Africa and some other developing countries.
According to data that took population into account, tainted water, soil and dirty indoor air put Chad, the Central African Republic, and Niger as the countries with the most pollution-related deaths
State programs to cut indoor air pollution and improvements in sanitation have helped to curb death tolls in other places.
In Ethiopia and Nigeria, these efforts brought pollution-related deaths down by two-thirds between 2000 and 2019.
Meanwhile, the Indian government began offering to replace wood-burning stoves with gas stove connections in 2016.
Deaths caused by exposure to modern pollutants such as heavy metals, agrochemicals, and fossil fuel emissions are “just skyrocketing”, rising 66% since 2000, said co-author Rachael Kupka, executive director of the New York-based Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.
Counter pollution efforts
The researchers explained that some large capitals have had some success in countering outdoor air pollution, including Bangkok, Beijing, and Mexico City, but in smaller cities, pollution levels continue to rise.
The study offered a list of the 10 countries most affected by pollution-related deaths, based on their findings on mortality adjusted for population.
These countries are Chad, Central African Republic, Niger, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, North Korea, Lesotho, Bulgaria, and Burkina Faso.