UN estimates 12.6 million deaths each year attributable to unhealthy environments

An estimated 12.6 million deaths each year are attributable to unhealthy environments. Photo: World Bank/John Hogg

15 March 2016 – An estimated 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012 – nearly one in four of total global deaths, according to new estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change, and ultraviolet radiation, reportedly contribute to more than 100 diseases and injuries.

“A healthy environment underpins a healthy population,” said WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, in a press release. “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,” she warned.

Rise of noncommunicable diseases

The second edition of the report, Preventing disease through healthy environments: a global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks, reveals that since it was first published a decade ago, deaths due to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), mostly attributable to air pollution – including exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke – amount to as much as 8.2 million of these deaths.

NCDs, such as stroke, heart disease, cancers and chronic respiratory disease, now amount to nearly two-thirds of the total deaths caused by unhealthy environments.

At the same time, deaths from infectious diseases, such as diarrhoea and malaria, often related to poor water, sanitation and waste management, have declined. Increases in access to safe water and sanitation have been key contributors to this trend, alongside better access to immunization, insecticide-treated mosquito nets and essential medicines.

Healthier environment: healthier people

The report emphasizes cost-effective measures that countries can take to reverse the upward trend of environment-related disease and deaths. These include reducing the use of solid fuels for cooking and increasing access to low-carbon energy technologies.

“There’s an urgent need for investment in strategies to reduce environmental risks in our cities, homes and workplaces,” said Dr. Maria Neira, the Director of WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “Such investments can significantly reduce the rising worldwide burden of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, injuries, and cancers, and lead to immediate savings in healthcare costs,” she added.

Environmental risks take their greatest toll on young children and older people, the report finds, with children under five and adults aged 50 to 75 years most impacted. According to WHO, the deaths of 1.7 million children under five and 4.9 million adults aged 50 to 75 could be prevented every year through better environmental management. Lower respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases mostly impact children under five, while older people are most impacted by NCDs.

Burden of disease in WHO Regions

Regionally, the report finds, low- and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions had the largest environment-related disease burden in 2012, with a total of 7.3 million deaths, most attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

In addition, low- and middle-income countries bear the greatest environmental burden in all types of diseases and injuries, however for certain NCDs, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers, the per capita disease burden can also be relatively high in high-income countries.

Top causes of environment-related deaths

Looking across more than 100 disease and injury categories, the report finds that the vast majority of environment-related deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke (2.5 million deaths annually) and ischaemic heart disease (2.3 million deaths annually). Meanwhile, unintentional injuries, such as road traffic accidents, and cancer each account for 1.7 million deaths every year.

Strategies to reduce environmental disease burden

The report cites proven strategies for improving the environment and preventing diseases. For instance, using clean technologies and fuels for domestic cooking, heating and lighting would reduce acute respiratory infections, chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and burns. Increasing access to safe water and adequate sanitation and promoting hand washing would further reduce diarrhoeal diseases.

Furthermore, tobacco smoke-free legislation reduces exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke, and thereby also reduces cardiovascular diseases and respiratory infections. Improving urban transit and urban planning, and building energy-efficient housing would reduce air pollution-related diseases and promote safe physical activity.

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