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Pollution connected to one in six deaths and hits the poorest hardest, Lancet study finds

27 October 2017

Richard Hanson/Tearfund

Fetid: rubbish-pickers work on a dump in Port au Prince, Haiti

Fetid: rubbish-pickers work on a dump in Port au Prince, Haiti

A STUDY that suggests that pollution is linked to one in six deaths worldwide, of which 92 per cent occur in developing countries, has prompted Tearfund to amplify its calls for “repair, recycling, and reuse”.

The report of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, published last week, estimates that pollution was linked to nine million deaths worldwide in 2015. It found air pollution to be the the biggest contributor, linked to 6.5 million deaths; water pollution, 1.8 million; and workplace-related pollution, 0.8 million. Almost all the pollution-related deaths (92 per cent) occurred in low- and middle-income countries.

In rapidly industrialising countries such as India, Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Madagascar, and Kenya, pollution can account for up to one in four deaths. Most of the deaths were due to diseases caused by pollution, such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The study is a two-year project that has involved more than 40 international health and environmental authors, and has drawn on data from the Global Burden of Disease study. The co-lead, Professor Philip Landrigan, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in the United States, said that pollution was a “profound and pervasive threat that affects many aspects of human health and well-being” and had been “neglected in the international assistance and the global health agendas”.

Tearfund’s senior policy adviser, Joanne Green, said: “We need to move away from a failed economic model which outsources its costs on to the poorest people — and causes a huge drag on economic growth in the poorest nations — to a circular economy, where waste is minimised through repair, recycling, and reuse. This would drastically cut pollution, save lives, and create jobs, and is a matter of justice as well as an environmental necessity.”

The environmental co-ordinator for the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, the Revd Dr Rachel Mash, reported that three-quarters of the electricity in South Africa comes from burning coal. “And yet, from mining, to transportation to the power station, coal has more health and environmental impacts than any other source of energy,” she said.

“Many of the poorest of our citizens who live closest to the coal-fired power stations cannot even afford to buy electricity, and yet it is their lungs that bear the greatest impact. The Anglican Church in Southern Africa has called for a rapid move to renewable energy, because of the impact of fossil fuels on the health of the most vulnerable as well as the long-term impacts of climate change.”

The authors of the study argue that pollution is “not the inevitable consequence of economic development”, and suggest the application of similar legislation and regulation to high-income countries.

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