Air Pollution Deaths Reach New Global Highs

OCTOBER 22, 2017
Kevin Kunzmann
air pollution, study, deathsDeaths related to ambient air pollution are becoming the most prominent in the world.

A study published this week reported that deaths from ambient air pollution have risen 20% in 25 recorded years, from 3.5 million deaths in 1990 to 4.2 million in 2015. Pollution is now estimated to be responsible for more than 20% of non-communicable diseases (NCD) in the world.

Primary drivers for the increase in ambient pollution are uncontrolled city growth, increased energy demands, use of gasoline and diesel and the “globalization of industry against the backdrop of an expanding, ageing global population,” researchers wrote.

With these worsening conditions, researchers projected pollution-related deaths to increase by more than 50% by 2050, if “aggressive intervention” is not met. The populations most likely to be affected by the continuing growth of pollution-led NCDs are residents low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs), according to the study.

“Pollution-related NCDs are a growing global threat that can no longer be ignored,” researchers wrote. “International agencies and the donor community must substantially increase the amount of funding and technical assistance that they direct to prevention of NCDs caused by pollution by the industrial, transport, chemical, and mining sectors in LMICs.”

In an interview with NPR, Philip J. Landrigan, lead author of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, said many of these affected LMICs are rapidly industrializing.

“But they have weak environmental agencies,” Landrigan said. “They're galloping ahead with industrialization without paying attention to the consequences.”

The researchers also expanded on the variety of disease linked to air pollution, noting that other epidemiological studies have found that even diabetes, autism, and dementia can be susceptible — as are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, and forms of cancer.

Chronic kidney disease can also be linked to air pollution in the US, according to the study. About 765,000 new reports of patients having an estimated glomerulat filtration rate (eGFR) less than 60 mL/min, and 30,000 new cases of end-stage renal disease can be attributed to ambient air pollution.

In children, air pollution can be linked to asthma, cancer, neurodevelopmental disorders, and birth defects. A study from earlier this week indicated babies are more likely to experience accelerated aging due to pollution exposure as well, and another from this summer showed air pollution could trigger multiple sclerosis relapse.

Annual pollution deaths equate to a higher rate than those from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, according to the study. But the health epidemic pales in public attention or effort.

Development funding from international agencies and donor countries for prevention of disease caused by ambient air pollution and other forms of modern industrial chemical and automotive pollution in LMICs is meagre,” researchers wrote. “Private philanthropy is also lacking.”

Landrigan recommended the creation of a Global Pollution Observatory in order to track progress made combating pollution. He also expressed hope that pollution makes a return to global policy discussion, like it had with the Clean Air Act of 1970.

“This is a winnable battle,” Landrigan said. “We say that because the rich countries have done it. In 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland was so polluted, it caught fire. Today, people kayak down that river.”

The study, "Air pollution and the kidney—implications for control of non-communicable diseases," was published online on The Lancet.

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