Geneva: The World Health Organisation has put a number on the people estimated to have died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment and it’s big -12.6 million.
That number represents one in four of all deaths globally and underscores the devastating impact of the chemicals and waste we’ve been putting into the air, water and earth since the end of World War II.
The WHO said deaths due to non-communicable diseases – which include heart disease and cancer and are related to exposure to pollution — now make up 8.2 million or nearly two-thirds of the total deaths. Deaths from infectious diseases – such as malaria and diarrhoea – due to unsafe water and lack of sanitation represent one-third and are on the decline.
“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,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said.
The latest report, based on 2012 data, is part of an effort by world leaders over the past year to inform the public of the close link between seemingly theoretical issues like climate change to something an individual can relate to – their own health.
Last March, the director of China’s meteorological administration gave a speech that was widely shared on social media in the country warning of the “severe threat” of climate change on the spread of mosquito-borne diseases and those that afflict children who play in infected waters. In the United States, President Barack Obama convened a summit on health and climate change in June.
“We know climate change is not a distant threat, we are already seeing impacts in communities across the country,” the White House said, citing the rising rates of asthma in the United States.
In December, these and other countries joined to ratify a universal pact to slow global warming – the most ambitious ever undertaken.
While every corner of the world has been impacted by changes in the environment, those in low- and middle-income countries in Asia that are manufacturing hubs are the worst affected.
The WHO’s South-East Asia Region, which includes India and Bangladesh, and its Western Pacific Region, which includes China and Australia, had 7.3 million of the total deaths.
A map produced by WHO to illustrate its Environmental Health report. Photo: WHO
Who listed the environment-related causes of death as: air pollution, inadequate water and sanitation, chemicals, radiation, community noise, occupational risks, agricultural practices, built environments and climate change.
Most of the environment-related deaths were due to cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart disease, while not surprisingly chronic respiratory diseases also accounted for a big number of deaths, according to the report.
The organisation said low and middle-income countries bear the greatest share of the “environment disease”.
Annual pollution-related deaths
Stroke – 2.5 million
Ischaemic heart disease – 2.3 million
Unintentional Injuries (eg road traffic deaths) – 1.7 million
Cancers – 1.7 million
Chronic Respiratory Diseases – 1.4 million, Respiratory Infections – 567,000
Diarrhoeal Diseases – 846,000
Neonatal Conditions – 270,000
Malaria – 259,000
Intentional injuries (eg suicides) – 246,000