The US is among the top 10 deadliest countries because of the pollution caused fatalities, as per a landmark new global study. The study also warns that “vested interests and overtaxed political infrastructures” are not letting us understand the magnitude of the pollution crisis.
Toxic air, water, land, and workplaces were accounting for 15% of all premature deaths that killed a minimum of 8.3 million people in 2017 around the world.
The omnipresent toxins, including plastics, pharmaceutical waste, mercury, most lead sources, and hormone-disrupting chemicals, made the burden of the actual death and disability globally much higher. These are yet to be included in the health data analyzed in the new report from the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.
The updated Pollution and Health Metrics Report, as per findings from a seminal Lancet Commission study shows 9 million premature deaths in 2015 due to pollution.
The burden of deaths is biggest in low and middle-income countries, like India and China, which are responsible for 4.3 million premature deaths all because of pollution.
However, the US ranks seventh for overall deaths and falls between Bangladesh and Russia. It is the “wealthiest” nation among the top 10, with almost 197,000 American lives lost in 2017.
Brazil, Indonesia, and Nigeria are also included in the top 10 and account for two-thirds of the pollution deaths globally.
“The US has historically been the gold standard in tackling pollution, and today we are sadly not doing enough, and the fact that we’re going backward is unconscionable,” said Gina McCarthy, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator. “We’re facing serious risks from pollution, and those risks are exacerbated by climate change.”
Each year, pollution kills thrice as many people as HIV/Aids, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, globally. The deaths from pollution are 15 times the number of deaths because of war and other types of violence.
Air pollution found to be the most significant cause of death and disability from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, stroke, and certain cancers.
Worldwide 3.4 million or 40% of pollution-related deaths are due to toxic ambient air, which is mostly caused by vehicles and heavy industry.
In the US, 55% of pollution deaths are caused by air toxins. Experts warn that the Trump administration’s dismantling of environmental standards will likely increase pollution-related illness and premature mortality.
“We won’t pick up the extra deaths for a few years, but it doesn’t look good for the US,” said Richard Fuller, the co-author of the report. “The [regulatory] roll-backs could lead to the US moving up the chart, and as always, it will be poor communities who are disproportionately affected.”
The particulate matter (PM), which is a complex mixture of minuscule particles and droplets produced by the burning of fossil fuels, power plants, and fires, is considered as one of the most harmful air pollutants for human health.
“PM is responsible for most of the [American] deaths, and the Trump administration has gutted the process for setting and implementing standards,” said Gretchen Goldman, Research Director, Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Our political leaders should be working to make the air cleaner and protect us from this huge public health threat, which is killing people. Instead, we’ve seen the opposite; standards have been rolled back, scientists removed, and evidence ignored,” added Goldman.
The new report draws on data from the Global Burden of Disease Study by the Institute for Health Metric (IHME) in 2017. There is a slight overall reduction from 9 to 8.3million deaths, which most likely reflects a change in the air pollution methodology, rather than any actual improvements.
The one positive trend is that pollution from traditional poor sanitation and wood-burning stoves are falling. In contrast, modern pollution-like chemical contaminants and air toxins from fossil fuels are rising everywhere.
“Things are not getting any better. There’s been no real investment in dealing with the biggy – modern pollution – by affected countries or bilateral agencies,” said Fuller.
Pollution could be found responsible for actually millions of more deaths than captured by the recent data as there are huge gaps in scientific knowledge.
For instance, the report shows one million lead-related deaths across the world as the current count only includes exposure to leaded fuel, whereas the actual figure could be two or three times higher than that. It excluded the impact of lead exposure from paint, water pipes, batteries, and foodstuffs.
In the US, old paint and antiquated water systems pose a threat to hundreds of thousands of children of exposure to lead, which causes cognitive and behavioral deficits, seizures, and death.
The current climate crisis could increase the number of people vastly who come into contact with pollution. For example, the chemical structure of some contaminants such as mercury, copper, and lead may alter for higher temperatures, while heavy rainfall could compromise toxic waste dumps, abandoned mines, and agricultural sewage ponds.
The authors conclude: “We are only just beginning to understand the complex relationship between pollution, health, and climate change; however, preliminary studies suggest it will indeed amplify the risk of toxic exposures … This could result in significantly greater pollution-related disease and death.”