By Andy Rowell
“For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, the environment, and the planet have been neglected both by Governments and the international development agenda. Yet, pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths.”
So begins the executive summary of the landmark Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, just published. It continues: “The substantial health and economic costs of pollution globally can no longer be ignored.”
The introduction to the report is stark: “Pollution is one of the great existential challenges of the Anthropocene epoch … Pollution is now a substantial problem that endangers the health of billions, degrades the Earth’s ecosystems, undermines the economic security of nations, and is responsible for an enormous global burden of disease, disability, and premature death.”
Some of the statistics and findings are startling. People are not just dying—they are getting sick and living with years of disability. This has an economic toll. The “welfare losses due to pollution to be more than US$4.6 trillion per year, which is equivalent to 6.2% of global economic output.”
If the message was not unambiguous enough: Air pollution “threatens the continuing survival of human societies.”
The impact on health is immense: Air pollution was responsible in 2015 for 19 percent of all cardiovascular deaths worldwide, 24 percent of ischaemic heart disease deaths, 21 percent of stroke deaths, and 23 percent of lung cancer deaths.
However, the burden is disproportionately on the poor and the world’s most vulnerable. More than ninety percent of all pollution-related mortality is seen in low-income and middle-income countries.
Children are also “at high risk of pollution-related disease and even extremely low-dose exposures to pollutants during windows of vulnerability in utero and in early infancy can result in disease, disability, and death in childhood and across their lifespan.”
The commission points the finger at the fossil fuel industry: “Pollution is intimately linked to global climate change. Fuel combustion—fossil fuel combustion in high-income and middle-income countries” is a key driver of pollution and “coal is the world’s most polluting fossil fuel, and coal combustion is an important cause of both pollution and climate change.”
“We fear that with nine million deaths a year, we are pushing the envelope on the amount of pollution the earth can carry,” said professor Philip Landrigan at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who co-led the commission.
Landrigan told the Guardian that the scale of deaths from pollution had surprised the researchers and that two other “real shockers” stood out. First was how quickly modern pollution deaths were rising, and secondly, “The current figure of nine million is almost certainly an underestimate, probably by several million.”
Landrigan added, “We always hear ‘we can’t afford to clean up pollution’—I say we can’t afford not to clean it up.”
Instead of cleaning up pollution and pioneering a clean energy future, the Trump administration is promoting dirty fossil fuels, including coal. Gina McCarthy, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, criticized the Trump administration after the report was released: “Now is not the time to go backwards in the U.S. Environmental protection and a strong economy go hand in hand. We also need to help other countries, not only for the benefit it will bring them, but because pollution knows no boundaries.”
It does not have to be this way. “This Lancet Commission should inform policy makers and serve as a timely call to action. Pollution is a winnable battle … Current and future generations deserve a pollution-free world,” the commission said in an editorial.
The time to act is now.