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Air Pollution Causes 1 In 6 Human Deaths

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Air pollution has always been deadly, more deadly than we typically understand or acknowledge. It’s one of those things that we often just grow to accept as normal. It has grown to become the 6th biggest killer of humans in the world and causes 1 out of every 6 human deaths worldwide.

Some Air Pollution Death Reductions, Other Air Pollution Death Increases

According to “Pollution and health: a progress update,” a recent report from the journal The Lancet Planetary Health, pollution is “responsible for approximately 9 million deaths per year, corresponding to one in six deaths worldwide.” While we’ve made progress in some areas, it’s been a case of two steps forward, two steps back. “Reductions have occurred in the number of deaths attributable to the types of pollution associated with extreme poverty. However, these reductions in deaths from household air pollution and water pollution are offset by increased deaths attributable to ambient air pollution and toxic chemical pollution (ie, lead). Deaths from these modern pollution risk factors, which are the unintended consequence of industrialisation and urbanisation, have risen by 7% since 2015 and by over 66% since 2000.”

Aside from the 9 million deaths, which they estimate are 16% of deaths worldwide, it’s estimated that air pollution resulted in $4.6 trillion in economic losses in 2015, 6.2% of global economic output.

Unfortunately, while we’ve known about problems with air pollution for decades and have made big progress in the past, in recent years, getting significant policy through to address this health crisis has not been so easy or common in recent years. “Despite ongoing efforts by UN agencies, committed groups, committed individuals, and some national governments (mostly in high-income countries), little real progress against pollution can be identified overall, particularly in the low-income and middle-income countries, where pollution is most severe. Urgent attention is needed to control pollution and prevent pollution-related disease, with an emphasis on air pollution and lead poisoning, and a stronger focus on hazardous chemical pollution.” Too many policymakers think air pollution isn’t the — or even an — urgent matter to tackle, so other things are focused on and human health is left by the wayside.

Report lead author Richard Fuller told the Washington Post that “a lack of attention” is a key reason for lack of progress on this matter. “There’s not much of an outcry around pollution … even though, clearly, 9 million people dying a year is an enormous issue to be concerned about,” Fuller added.

A Global Response to Air Pollution

While policies to address air pollution are certainly needed at the city level, at the state level, and at the national level, the authors of this report in The Lancet below that stronger international, global policies to address this global health crisis are needed.

“Pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss are closely linked. Successful control of these conjoined threats requires a globally supported, formal science–policy interface to inform intervention, influence research, and guide funding. Pollution has typically been viewed as a local issue to be addressed through subnational and national regulation or, occasionally, using regional policy in higher-income countries. Now, however, it is increasingly clear that pollution is a planetary threat, and that its drivers, its dispersion, and its effects on health transcend local boundaries and demand a global response. Global action on all major modern pollutants is needed. Global efforts can synergise with other global environmental policy programmes, especially as a large-scale, rapid transition away from all fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy is an effective strategy for preventing pollution while also slowing down climate change, and thus achieves a double benefit for planetary health.”

Well, it’s a nice dream. But given today’s strong trends toward nationalism, protectionism, and retreat into their own cultural bubbles and corners of the world, it’s hard to imagine much progress coming on this. It is indeed human health we’re talking about — something we should all be able to unite around. But the world is not so simple.

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