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Unhealthy environment kills 12.6 million people every year: WHO study

  • Scientists estimate that in 2012, 12.6 million people died because of working or living in unhealthy environmental conditions.
  • Children, aged less than five years, and adults between 50 and 75 years, are most negatively impacted by unhealthy environment, the study found
  • Regionally, lower and middle-income countries seem to bear the greatest burden of environment-related diseases and injuries, the study found, although some environment-related noncommunicable diseases like cancers and cardiovascular diseases are on the rise in high-income countries.

The environment you live in could be killing you. Nearly one in every four deaths can be attributed to polluted air or water, climate change, chemical exposures, or other environmental risks, according to a new study by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Scientists estimate that in 2012, 12.6 million people died because of working or living in unhealthy environmental conditions. In fact, the study found that environmental risks could be increasing the risk of more than 100 diseases and injuries.

“A healthy environment underpins a healthy population,” Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, said in a statement. “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.”

Not all people suffer alike. Children, aged less than five years, and adults between 50 and 75 years, are affected the most by unhealthy environment, the study found.

In children under five years, for example, lower respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis, are the most important causes of death. Indoor air pollution (such as exposure to smoke from cookstoves), and inhalation of tobacco smoke, are major risk factors for these diseases, the authors write.

In the past decade, deaths due to infectious, parasitic and nutritional diseases have declined globally, the study says. This, the authors speculate, is possibly due to increasing access to safe water and sanitation.

However, during the same period, deaths due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as strokes, cancers, and heart ailments have risen considerably, the authors say. In 2012, these diseases contributed to 8.2 million deaths, or about two-thirds of environment-related deaths in that year.

Air pollution in Delhi, India, is one of the highest in the world. Photo by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy, from Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

Regionally, lower and middle-income countries seem to bear the greatest burden of environment-related diseases and injuries, the study found. For example, countries in south-east Asia, Western Pacific region and the African Region contributed to 9.5 million deaths in 2012.

A number of environment-related diseases are on the rise in high-income countries too. These include NCDs like cardiovascular diseases and some cancers, the authors write.

“While the highest number of deaths per capita attributable to the environment occurs in sub-Saharan Africa, primarily from infectious diseases, other regions now have higher rates of NCDs attributable to the environment,” they add.

The study says that many environment-related deaths can be prevented by better management of the environment. For example, using clean technologies and fuels for cooking, heating and lighting can help reduce respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Similarly, improving access to clean drinking water and sanitation could significantly reduce infectious diseases. Bangladesh, for instance, has made huge strides in improving sanitation. Open defecation in the country is now down to just one percent, from 43 percent in 2003, according to recent official data.

“There’s an urgent need for investment in strategies to reduce environmental risks in our cities, homes and workplaces”, Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said in the statement. “Such investments can significantly reduce the rising worldwide burden of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, injuries, and cancers, and lead to immediate savings in healthcare costs.”

These are the top 10 environment-related diseases, according to the report:

  1. Stroke – 2.5 million deaths annually
  2. Ischaemic heart disease – 2.3 million deaths annually
  3. Unintentional injuries (such as road traffic deaths) – 1.7 million deaths annually
  4. Cancers – 1.7 million deaths annually
  5. Chronic respiratory diseases – 1.4 million deaths annually
  6. Diarrhoeal diseases – 846 000 deaths annually
  7. Respiratory infections – 567 000 deaths annually
  8. Neonatal conditions – 270 000 deaths annually
  9. Malaria – 259 000 deaths annually
  10. Intentional injuries (such as suicides) – 246 000 deaths annually