The science team of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health was particularly tough in the latest report: the rates of death and disease caused by pollution are higher than ever. They cause 1 in 6 deaths worldwide and disproportionately affect developing areas.
"There isn't much to be done about it," he said Rachael Kupka, executive director of the commission and one of the co-authors of the report. Coordinated action by world governments and international agencies is needed to mitigate pollution while also addressing other threats such as climate change and biodiversity loss.
If it sounds disastrous to you, it's actually even worse
The new estimate is based on previous research by the Lancet Commission, which estimated the victims of pollution at about 9 million deaths in 2015. Following the same criteria for the estimates, the researchers found an almost unchanged number: and it is not a good news, indeed. The decline in deaths due to improved domestic air and water (a factor generally due to poverty) was largely offset by air pollution, such as particulate matter, which claimed even more deaths.
Overall, deaths caused by so-called "modern" types of pollution (those related to industrialization, fossil fuels and exposure to chemicals) have increased by over 66% in the last 20 years.
Pollution, the most insidious enemies
Over 6,5 million deaths a year are due to air pollution. On the dock are tiny particles known as PM 2,5, 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They are produced by fires and fossil fuels: they are deposited deep in the lungs and cause respiratory, cardiovascular and neurological damage. In 2021, an estimate by University of Chicago researchers, estimated that exposure to PM 2,5 takes away about 21 billion years of life expectancy every year.
Other concerns expressed in the report concern chemical pollution (especially in low- and middle-income countries, where two thirds of world chemical production is concentrated). Lead from electronic waste, contaminated paints and spices reap 1 million deaths a year, and poison the blood of 800 million children.
The total of 1,8 million deaths a year, however, is "largely underestimated": says another of the co-authors of the report, prof. Philip Landrigan.
Efforts against pollution? Virtually null
The commission concludes that world governments have made "little effort" over the past 5 years to reduce the exposure of their populations to pollution. Health efforts (also thanks to Covid) have practically focused only on infectious diseases, taking away resources and efforts from the environmental fight.
This does not mean that nothing has been done, of course. In recent years, Europe, China, India and other countries have worked to reduce deaths from pollution, inspired by the guidelines of the World Health Organization, which has introduced even stricter standards.
However, Kupka and colleagues say much, much more needs to be done. When world governments truly recognize that pollution is an urgent priority, they will introduce more serious measures than they are today. For example, a draconian standard on car emissions, a relentless fight at microplastics or a perpetual ban on the use of lead-based dyes.
In summary: things that stop pollution at the source, not just try to manage it. You cannot "manage" a Holocaust.