Pollution and environmental hazards like dirty water continue to amass a staggering yearly death toll, mostly in the developing world, according to a new analysis by the World Health Organization.
The main drivers of the 2015 death toll were related to disease caused by unsafe surroundings.
Some 570,000 are killed through respiratory infections like pneumonia, which are caused by both indoor and outdoor air pollution, and even second-hand smoke. Diarrhea claims some 361,000 due to dirty water and lack of sanitation. Another 270,000 are killed by a wide variety of other germs and parasites from lack of clean water sources, including roundworm, schistosomiasis, leishmaniasis, and others. A ballpark 200,000 die from malaria. And unintentional injuries claim another 200,000 young lives from poisoning, falls, drownings and other preventable hazards.
But other deaths are also included in the estimates. Pediatric cancers, tied to sun exposure, second-hand smoke and pesticides are also included (some 33,000 deaths). Less clear are the disease burden and mortality count from mental, neurological and other disorders caused by exposure to lead and ambient chemicals persisting in the environment, including flame retardants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, according to the reports.
The WHO contends these annual deaths can be prevented in the coming decades.
“A polluted environment results in a heavy toll on the health of our children,” said Maria Neira, an official at WHO leading its Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Investing in the removal of environmental risks to health, such as improving water quality or using cleaner fuels, will result in massive health benefits.”
The two reports were limited by some factors that could not be calculated, the health officials report. Climate change and various chemicals could not be quantified, and neither could some diseases which have eluded systemic epidemiological tracking, like Japanese encephalitis, HIV and AIDs, and tick-borne disease.
But the environmental causes of the death appear to have as much to do with titanic social pressures such as poverty in the developing world, and also political strife. For instance, the mass exodus of refugees from the Syria and the Middle East into Europe in the last several years has also caused thousands of deaths of children and parents, including those of drownings and disease. The WHO has also found previously that air pollution in the world’s poorest cities like those in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and India have many times the particulates of most modern Western cities – and are claiming an annual death toll in themselves of approximately 3 million people.