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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

November 2017

Lancet group estimates deaths and economic costs from pollution

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health linked pollution to 1 in 6 deaths worldwide and to $4.6 trillion in economic costs each year.

Bill Suk “We have technologies that can remediate or reduce exposures,” Suk said, pointing to research by the Superfund Research Program, which he directs. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Deaths linked to pollution account for 1 in 6 worldwide, or 9 million premature deaths in 2015, according to a Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health report, released Oct. 19. Estimates of economic costs associated with pollution total more than $4.6 trillion each year. NIEHS Hazardous Substances Branch Chief Bill Suk, Ph.D., along with several NIEHS grantees, were among the more than 40 international authors of the new report.

“This is the first analysis to report the impacts of all kinds of pollution in all parts of the world, both health and economic,” Suk said. He noted that Goal 10 of the NIEHS 2012-2017 Strategic Plan calls for evaluating the economic effects of exposure reductions. “This report required development of whole new set of algorithms to link exposure, disease, and economics on a worldwide scale,” Suk added.

“Pollution is much more than an environmental challenge — it is a profound and pervasive threat that affects many aspects of human health and wellbeing,” said commission co-lead Philip Landrigan, M.D., an NIEHS grantee from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, according to a press release. “It deserves the full attention of international leaders, civil society, health professionals, and people around the world.”

The report includes a comprehensive list of recommended solutions. “The good news is that much pollution can be eliminated, and pollution prevention can be highly cost-effective,” the authors wrote.

Figures likely to be underestimated

Highlights of the commission’s findings include the following.

  • The biggest contributor, air pollution, is linked to 6.5 million deaths, followed by water pollution and workplace-related pollution.
  • Of all pollution-related deaths, 92 percent occur in low- and middle-income countries.
  • In rapidly industrializing countries — Bangladesh, China, India, Kenya, Madagascar, and Pakistan, for example — deaths due to pollution can account for up to one in four deaths per year.

Those figures are likely to be low, according to economist Maureen Cropper, Ph.D., from the University of Maryland and a former lead economist at the World Bank. “The report details gaps in our data and knowledge of pollution’s toll, showing a need for research into soil, heavy metals, and chemicals related to the burden of disease, as these aspects do not have fully defined risk factors and therefore are significantly underestimated,” she said.

Disparities in effects of pollution

According to the authors, the burden of pollution falls unequally on the poor and on children from any income level. “Our studies following pregnant women and their children in the U.S., Poland, and China have demonstrated the striking susceptibility of the developing fetus and child to harm from fossil-fuel related air pollutants, pesticides, and common chemicals, such as phthalates, bisphenol A, and flame retardants,” said NIEHS grantee Frederica Perera, Dr.Ph., Ph.D., from Columbia University.

“Pollution and climate change affect children everywhere, but especially those living in poverty,” she added.

The authors also addressed the common belief that pollution is inevitable as countries industrialize. “The conclusions from this analysis are that pollution is not the unavoidable consequence of economic development, and that it is much more important to formulate sound laws, policies, and regulations to control pollution than to wait for an economy to reach a magical tipping point that will solve the problems of environmental degradation and pollution related disease,” the report stated.

Resources developed by commission authors include an interactive map of air pollution, water pollution, and contaminated sites worldwide.

“I am hopeful that the Commission on Pollution and Health will accelerate the public’s understanding of how pollution is at the root of many diseases and disorders that plague humankind,” said Bruce Lanphear, M.D., from Simon Fraser University, who is a co-author on the report and an NIEHS grantee.

Citation: Landrigan PJ, Fuller R, Acosta NJR, Adeyi O, Arnold R, Basu NN, Balde AB, Bertollini R, Bose-O'Reilly S, Boufford JI, Breysse PN, Chiles T, Mahidol C, Coll-Seck AM, Cropper ML, Fobil J, Fuster V, Greenstone M, Haines A, Hanrahan D, Hunter D, Khare M, Krupnick A, Lanphear B, Lohani B, Martin K, Mathiasen KV, McTeer MA, Murray CJL, Ndahimananjara JD, Perera F, Potocnik J, Preker AS, Ramesh J, Rockstrom J, Salinas C, Samson LD, Sandilya K, Sly PD, Smith KR, Steiner A, Stewart RB, Suk WA, van Schayck OCP, Yadama GN, Yumkella K, Zhong M. 2017. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health. Lancet; pii: S0140-6736(17)32345-0 [Online 17 Oct. 2017].

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