If someone asked you what the world’s biggest killer is, you would probably guess that the answer is violence or some kind of illness, like AIDS or heart disease. You would be wrong. Though these scourges kill many people every year, the greatest cause of premature death in the world is environmental pollution.
According to a major study just released in The Lancet medical journal, pollution was responsible for about one out of every six early deaths in the world in 2015. This adds up to about 9 million deaths annually. This means that such things as dirty air and contaminated drinking water kills more people every year than all forms of violence. It also kills more people than smoking, AIDS, hunger, or natural disasters.
What’s worse than this is that these 9 million deaths are probably only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. This number is only an estimate of the number of deaths caused annually by pollution. Once more research is done, this number is expected to climb significantly.
Out of all the areas where environmental pollution was tested, Asia and Africa were the continents where the most people were at risk from pollution-related death. Of all the individual countries studied, India was the worst, with roughly 25% of premature deaths in 2015 caused by pollution. China was the second worst, with about 20% of deaths caused by illnesses related to pollution. Several other countries- such as North Korea, Haiti, Pakistan, and Bangladesh- also had about 20% of their early deaths caused by environmental pollution. Since their populations were smaller, though, the total death toll was less than that of India’s and China’s.
Making this news even more tragic is that these deaths are often concentrated among the people who are already suffering the most—the poorest people in the world. About 92% of pollution-related deaths take place in developing countries where average incomes are quite low. Unfortunately, governments in these countries are more concerned with developing the economy, often at the expense of the environment. This study shows that such a focus actually causes a country more harm, since it results in illness and death due to pollution. Since the financial cost of death and illness related to pollution costs the world about $4.6 trillion a year, a focus on the economy to the detriment of the environment also causes more economic harm than good to developing countries.
The release of the study comes at a time when the world is starting to focus more on the effects of pollution. Both the United Nations and the World Bank have announced efforts to reduce global pollution. It is hoped that this research will help spur these entities and others to increase their efforts to protect the environment and save lives.