SEATTLE — According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 12.6 million people died worldwide as a result of unhealthy living and working environments. This number amounts to nearly one in four of total global deaths. The data from the report, “Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments: A Global Assessment of the Burden of Disease from Environmental Risks,” is not new; it was originally released in 2012. However, the WHO recently reintroduced the study’s findings in order to shed light on the ongoing issue of pollution and environmental health hazards.
According to the study, the largest share of environment-related deaths, 8.2 million, are caused by non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Most NCDs can be attributed to air pollution.
NCDs, which include stroke, heart disease, cancers and chronic respiratory disease, now amount to nearly two-thirds of the total deaths caused by unhealthy environments, according to the WHO.
Across more than 100 disease and injury categories, the report finds that “the majority of environment-related deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases.”
Stroke was the number one cause of environmental-related death, with 2.5 million deaths annually. Heart disease follows at 2.3 million annual deaths. Cancer is also high on the list, causing 1.7 million deaths annually.
At the same time, the study notes that increases in access to safe water, immunization, and essential medicines has decreased deaths from infectious diseases, such as cholera and malaria.
The report found that young children, aged under 5 years, and older people, aged 50-75 years were most impacted by environmental health hazards. Annually, the deaths of 1.7 million children under 5 and 4.9 million adults aged 50 to 75 could be prevented through better environmental management.
According to the WHO, low- and middle-income countries bear the greatest environmental burden in diseases and injuries, particularly in South-East Asia.
However, for certain NCDs, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers, “the per capita disease burden can also be relatively high in high-income countries,” according to a 2015 statement by the WHO.
Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, argues that measures to reduce the affects of environmental pollution will lead not only to improved global health conditions, but also to immediate savings in healthcare costs. Improving conditions will take considerable effort from individuals, organizations and governments.
The WHO report suggests strategies such as reducing the use of solid fuels for cooking and increasing access to cleaner forms of energy, such as wind or solar power. The WHO argues that such steps would reduce respiratory infections and cardiovascular diseases.
Governments can significantly improve living conditions by implementing programs to encourage physical activity, by promoting tobacco-smoke-free legislation, and by improving urban transit systems.
In Curitiba, Brazil, despite a “five-fold population increase in the past 50 years” according to the WHO, air pollution levels are lower than in many other rapidly growing cities. Additionally, life expectancy in Curitiba is two years longer than the national Brazilian average. According to PBS, this success is due to the city’s investment in recycling programs, efficient bus systems and implementation of “Green Areas” for park space and future development.
One organization combating environmental health hazards around the world is Conservation International (CI). This Virginia-based organization is attempting to bridge the gap between economic development and environmental well-being.
Partnerships with the U.S. government, the European Union, and other governments allow CI to promote policies that conserve natural resources and implement cleaner standards. The organization also partners with scientists, NGOs, corporations and local communities in countries around the globe, particularly those designated as priority areas. For example, the CI currently works in Indonesia to improve air quality in the capital Jakarta, which the organization claims only gets around 27 days of clean air per year.
At the World Health Assembly in May, the World Health Organization will propose a plan of action for reducing the adverse health effects of air pollution.
“A healthy environment underpins a healthy population,” says Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “If countries do not take actions to make environments where people live and work healthy, millions will continue to become ill and die too young.”