Worsening outdoor air pollution and toxic lead poisoning have kept global deaths from environmental contamination at an estimated 9 million per year since 2015- countering modest progress made in tackling pollution elsewhere, a team of scientists report.
Air pollution from industry processes along with urbanization drove a 7% increase in pollution-related deaths from 2015 to 2019, according to the scientists' analysis of data on global mortality and pollution levels.
"So the key findings of this report are kind of shocking, which are not much that has changed in five years in terms of the overall number of premature deaths," co-author Rachael Kupka, executive director of the New York-based Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, told Reuters.
"We're still seeing 9 million deaths a year from all types of pollution, air, water and soil."
An earlier version of the work published in 2017 also estimated the death toll from pollution at roughly 9 million per year- or about one of every six deaths worldwide- and the cost to the global economy at up to $4.6 trillion per year. That puts pollution on par with smoking in terms of global deaths. COVID-19, by comparison, has killed about 6.7 million people globally since the pandemic began.
For their most recent study, published in the online journal Lancet Planetary Health, the authors analyzed 2019 data from the Global Burden of Disease, an ongoing study by the University of Washington that assesses overall pollution exposure and calculates mortality risk.
The new analysis looks more specifically at the causes of pollution- separating traditional contaminants such as indoor smoke from cooking or sewage from more modern pollutants, like industrial air pollution and toxic chemicals.
"So the number of premature deaths from modern pollution has increased 66% since 2000. Conversely, we're seeing a reduction in number of deaths from traditional pollution," Kupka said.
"So the improvements that we're seeing in traditional pollution are actually being offset by this increase in deaths from modern pollution."
Deaths from traditional pollutants are declining globally. But they remain a major problem in Africa and some other developing countries. Tainted water and soil and dirty indoor air put Chad, the Central African Republic and Niger as the three countries with the most pollution-related deaths, according to data adjusted for population.
State programs to cut indoor air pollution and improvements in sanitation have helped curb death tolls in some places. In Ethiopia and Nigeria, these efforts brought related deaths to drop by two-thirds between 2000 and 2019. Meanwhile, the Indian government in 2016 began offering to replace wood-burning stoves with gas stove connections.