BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Pollution was responsible for nine million deaths in 2019—equivalent to one-in-six deaths worldwide — according to a study released in The LancetPlanetary Health Report. This atrocity is compounded by the fact that more than 90 percent of pollution’s impact is felt in low- and middle-income countries.
The report — an update to The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health published in 2017 — states that although researchers have seen decreases in the number of deaths from pollution sources associated with extreme poverty, such as indoor air pollution and water pollution, these reductions are offset by increased deaths attributable to industrial pollution, such as ambient air pollution and chemical pollution. The result is a number virtually unchanged since the last analysis.
Joseph Shaw, associate dean for research and an associate professor at the Paul H. O’Neill School for Public and Environmental Affairs, contributed to the report. Shaw is an expert on toxic chemical pollution and is helping develop precision toxicology approaches as part of a consortium of U.S. and European organizations called Precision Tox. Those approaches can help reduce deaths from modern pollution by improving methods for identifying and mapping toxic chemicals in the environment.
“The initial report in 2017 was a game-changer in terms of raising awareness about the magnitude of the health and humanitarian crisis caused by pollution,” Shaw said. “Our update makes it clear that the world desperately needs solutions that take into account the way the various sources of pollution make an impact on the health of humans around the world or else gains in one area will continue to be offset by tragedies in others.”
The latest report is built on a foundation of previous alarming reports. The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health report from five years ago based its findings partly on data from the 2015 Global Burden of Disease study, and the newest report provides updated estimates for the health effects of pollution based on the most recently available 2019 Global Burden of Disease study data and methodological updates, as well as an assessment of trends since 2000.
Beside the staggering death toll attributed to pollution in 2019, the report found that deaths caused by modern forms of pollution, such as ambient air pollution and toxic chemical pollution, have increased 66 percent and have been driven by industrialization, uncontrolled urbanization, population growth, fossil fuel combustion, and an absence of adequate national or international chemical policies. Most countries worldwide have done little to deal with the issue of modern pollution.
However, efforts to improve conditions can make a positive impact. For instance, deaths from pollution associated with extreme poverty since 2000 have declined most in Africa, which has seen improvements in the areas of water supply and sanitation, antibiotics and healthcare, and cleaner fuels.
“The health impacts of pollution remain enormous, and low- and middle-income countries bear the brunt of this burden,” said Richard Fuller, lead author of the paper and commission co-chair. “Despite its enormous health, social and economic impacts, pollution prevention is largely overlooked in the international development agenda. Attention and funding have only minimally increased since 2015, despite well-documented increases in public concern about pollution and its health effects.”
To explore the latest report, visit the Commission on Pollution and Health website.
Ken Bikoff, Faculty Liaison and Public Relations Officer
Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs | Indiana University
About the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs
The O’Neill School is a world leader in public and environmental affairs and is the largest school of public administration and public policy in the United States. In the 2023 "Best Graduate Public Affairs Programs" by U.S. News & World Report, the O'Neill School is the top-ranked program in the country. Five of its specialty programs are ranked in the top-five listings, including top-ranked concentrations in environmental policy and management; nonprofit management; and public finance.