Newswise — Pollution was responsible for 9 million deaths in 2019 -- equivalent to 1 in 6 deaths worldwide -- a number virtually unchanged since the last analysis in 2015, according to a new report published in The Lancet Planetary Health.

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 2017 report used data from the 2015 Global Burden of Disease study. The new 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.

A global team of researchers, including Indiana University’s Joseph Shaw, an expert on toxic chemical pollution, contributed to the report. 

"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."

Other key findings from the report include:

  • Pollution remains the world’s largest environmental risk factor for disease and premature death, especially affecting low- and middle-income countries, which carry over 90% of the burden of pollution wordwide.
  • Air pollution accounts for nearly 75% of the 9 million deaths. More than 1.8 million deaths -- an increase of 66% since 2000 -- are caused by toxic chemical pollution, including lead.
  • The decline in deaths from pollution associated with extreme poverty since 2000 is most evident in Africa. This can be explained by improvements in water supply and sanitation, antibiotics and health care, and cleaner fuels.
  • Deaths from exposure to modern/industrial pollution have increased substantially across all regions over the past 20 years. This is particularly evident in Southeast Asia, where rising levels of industrial pollution are combined with aging populations and increasing numbers of people exposed.

Shaw, who is an associate dean for research and associate professor in IU’s Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, said the precision toxicology approaches he is co-developing as part of a consortium of European and U.S. organizations called PrecisionTox will help reduce deaths from modern pollution by improving methods for identifying and mapping toxic chemicals in the environment.

Shaw also co-founded the Environment Care Consortium and the Solve Pollution Network to help implement systems-level solutions to solve pollution. These organizations partner with countries to couple precision toxicology with clean-up and remediation plans to solve pollution. They also work to empower people with vastly improved opportunities and effective recourse by establishing causation between chemicals and their adverse health effects, as well as between polluters and the victims of pollution. 

Journal Link: The Lancet Planetary Health