The headlines are grabbing people’s attention:
CBC News: “Pollution causing more deaths worldwide than war or smoking“; CNN: “Pollution linked to 9 million deaths worldwide in 2015, study says“; BBC: “Pollution linked to one in six deaths“; Associated Press: “Pollution killing more people every year than wars, disaster and hunger, study says“; The Independent: “Pollution is killing millions of people a year and the world is reaching ‘crisis point’, experts warn.“
News outlets are referring to a report released yesterday by The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. The report’s authors—an international team of nearly 50 public health scientists—spent nearly two years synthesizing data on the human health effects and economic costs of toxic substances in the air, soil, and water.
Their definition of pollution comes from the European Union:
“unwanted, often dangerous, material that is introduced into the Earth’s environment as the result of human activity, that threatens human health, and that harms ecosystems.”
The headlines whet my appetite for more of the numbers and the report delivers. For example, the committee’s analysis indicates:
- An estimated 9 million deaths in 2015 can be attributed to air, water, and soil pollution. This compares to an estimated 4 million deaths from obesity, 2.3 million from alcohol, and 1.4 million on roadways.
- Pollution related deaths are responsible for three times as many deaths from AIDs, TB, and malaria combined.
- Pollution related deaths are responsible for nearly 15 times as many deaths as those from wars and all forms of violence.
The report, however, goes much deeper than calculations and point estimates. Laced throughout the report—explicit and implicit—is a message that governments, foundations, medical societies, and research institutions pay too little attention to the impact of pollution on health. The authors call out political actors, international development and health organizations for ignoring pollution in their agendas. The authors write:
“Although more than 70% of the diseases caused by pollution are non-communicable diseases, interventions against pollution are barely mentioned in the [World Health Organization’s] Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases.”
The identify several factors for the neglect:
“… A persistent impediment has been the flawed conventional wisdom that pollution and disease are the unavoidable consequences of economic development, the so-called ‘environmental Kuznets hypothesis.’ This Commission vigorously challenges that claim as a flawed and obsolete notion formulated decades ago when populations and urban centres were much smaller than they are today, the nature, sources, and health effects of pollution were very different, and cleaner fuels and modern production technologies were not yet available.
The authors do not shy away from articulating a path forward to address pollution. I agree with their assessment that sustainable long-term solutions will require a fundamental economic shift. We must move away from the “resource-intensive, and inherently wasteful, linear take-make-use-dispose economic paradigm.” (It’s a mouthful but sums it up well.) We must embrace and adopt a new economic system that the authors describe as one in which:
“pollution is reduced through the creation of durable, long-lasting products, the reduction of waste by large-scale recycling, reuse, and repair, the removal of distorting subsidies, the replacement of hazardous materials with safer alternatives, and strict enforcement of pollution taxes. …[An economy that] conserves and increases resources, rather than taking and depleting them.”
The Lancet Commission’s report generated some eye catching headlines. I’m glad I took the time to read it. I hope many others do too.