If you’re poor, you’re more likely to be killed by pollution. This is the conclusion of a new report, which has found that disease caused by pollution is “most prevalent among minorities and the marginalised”, whatever a country’s income level.
Factories, cars, mining, industrial farming – they all contribute to toxic air, water, soil and chemical pollution.
These kinds of pollution are on the rise and in 2015 they prematurely killed 9 million people – three times more than were killed by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined that year, and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence.
The Lancet Commission on pollution and health report, published today, says those in low-income communities are particularly affected.
The largest pollution increases are seen in rapidly developing and industrialising low-income and middle-income countries such as India and China.
In India, worsening air pollution causes an overwhelming 1.1 million premature deaths a year. Low-income residents bear the brunt of this problem, partly because they live in poorer neighbourhoods – often located nearer busier roads or factories – and partly because they are less likely to be able to afford air conditioning and better healthcare to help offset the impacts.
This is not just a problem for developing countries though. 85% of the London schools most affected by air pollution have pupils who come from the most socially deprived neighbourhoods. Beyond the capital, the same inequalities play out.
And, if you live in the US, there’s nearly a one-in-four chance your water is either unsafe to drink or has not been properly monitored for contaminants. The Flint water crisis threw the issue of pollution and environmental injustice into the spotlight when cost-cutting measures resulted in a predominantly black, incredibly poor city drinking and bathing in water so heavily contaminated with lead and other toxins that it met the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of “toxic waste”.
Bleak as it is, there is some good news. Yes pollution in many parts of the world is getting worse, say the Lancet report authors, but pollution control is a “winnable battle”. Given the huge costs associated with the health impacts of global pollution – worldwide welfare losses due to pollution are estimated to add up to a colossal 6·2% of global economic output – there is an economic incentive to tackling it too.
High-income and some middle-income countries are predominantly taking the lead. Alongside national legislation to mandate clean air and water, and curb the most hazardous forms of pollution, a growing number of cities and businesses are transitioning to renewables and adopting lower carbon technologies and forms of transport.
However, there is a long way to go. In the US, once heralded as a country playing a leading role in addressing climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency is set to dismantle the clean water rule protecting the waterways that provide drinking water for about a third of the US population. Last week the EPA also moved to eliminate the Clean Power Plan that sought to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired plants. Health advocates have said these regulations would have reduced asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
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