By: Nathaniel Tok

Pollution is the leading environmental cause of death and disease, according to a recent study.

SFU health sciences professor Bruce Lanphear is the author of a report released by The Lancet Commission detailing the adverse health outcomes that pollution causes in the global human population.

In the first report of its kind to quantify the burden of pollution as well as its economic and social cost, the study found that nine million deaths or 16 per cent of all deaths around the world in 2015 were caused by pollution-related diseases.

“We can prevent pollution-related deaths because we are generating the pollution,” Lanphear explained.

The report cites that pollution is responsible for three times more deaths than those that are caused by malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS put together. In some places, up to a quarter of the deaths in a population may be caused by complications from environmental pollution.

Lower- and middle-income demographics and countries are being disproportionately affected by pollution and its effects. Up to 92 per cent of those nine million deaths occurred in these lower-income areas, the report found. Lanphear stated that this was due to the fact that rapidly industrializing countries often had the highest levels of pollution.

The report also found that children face greater adverse outcomes from pollution because low levels of exposure when the child is young or even before birth can lead to lifelong illness.

“We hoped that the report — which quantified the contribution of various pollutants and toxic chemicals — would galvanize action to prevent deaths from pollution.” – Bruce Lanphear, SFU health sciences

However, Lanphear believes that pollution-related deaths are preventable, and points to the progress that has been made over the last few decades in regulations to control and identify pollutants. Even pollutants that had very prevalent usage in everyday life such as lead were eventually reduced or eliminated. The use of cleaner sources of energy can also help reduce air pollution, which can help improve human health.

The current regulations are still not enough, as many chemicals remain untested and regulations to control pollution or reduce pollutant use are often stalled.

“We can do much more to prevent or reduce the effects of pollutants that surround us,” Lanphear said. “We are also finding that some of the most studied pollutants — like air pollution, lead, and benzene — don’t have a threshold or safe level of exposure. That means we are underestimating the number of diseases and deaths caused by pollution.”

Beyond governmental regulation, Lanphear sees ways for ordinary citizens to help reduce disease-causing pollution. He encourages sharing of carbon-emitting vehicles or using other transportation methods like cycling.

“Minimize the unnecessary use of chemicals, like pesticides and cosmetics,” he added. “Encourage your family [and] friends to find ways to reduce pollution and minimize the use of unneeded chemicals in your homes.”

The commission views this report as a call to action, since it was first motivated by the fact that pollution-related deaths were overlooked as a big contributor to fatalities. “We hoped that the report — which quantified the contribution of various pollutants and toxic chemicals — would galvanize action to prevent deaths from pollution,” Lanphear said.

“We will, invariably if slowly, continue to make progress,” he added. “The question is how many deaths are we willing to accept?”

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