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Report: Pollution is the Leading Cause of Death in the Developing World

Alexis Petru headshotWords by Alexis Petru
Leadership & Transparency

It was only after Seynabou Mbengue saw five of her 10 children die that she realized the culprit: her job extracting lead from used batteries by hand. The Senegalese mother watched as her five youngest children, all born after she started her toxic recycling job, began to have seizures and convulsions until they finally passed away before their second birthdays.

Unfortunately, the tragic deaths of Mbengue’s children are not uncommon. Pollution is the leading cause of death in low- and middle-income countries, according to a report from the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), an organization whose members include the World Bank, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and various United Nations’ bodies and national governments.

In 2012, pollution – in the form of contaminated soil, water, and both indoor and outdoor air – was responsible for 8.4 million deaths in developing countries, finds Pollution: The Silent Killer of Millions in Poor Countries. That’s almost three times more deaths than those caused by malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis combined: Malaria claimed 600,000 lives in 2012, HIV/AIDS caused 1.5 million deaths and tuberculosis killed 900,000 individuals.

And the Ebola outbreak that had American legislators shaking in their suits, while ignoring more pressing national issues? Last year, fewer than 8,000 individuals died from the Ebola virus, the report says.

Worldwide, pollution is responsible for 8.9 million deaths – or 1 in 7 deaths globally. But 94 percent of the burden of pollution falls on lower-income countries “who are the least equipped to deal with the problem,” according to the report.

Of the 8.4 million pollution-caused deaths in developing countries, air pollution was the leading offender, the report finds. Forty-four percent of pollution-caused deaths resulted from household air pollution, such as cook stoves that contaminate the air, and 38 percent were caused by ambient air pollution, including particulates from power plants, cars and trucks. The contamination of soil and food from heavy metals released by industry and mining accounted for 10 percent of pollution-caused deaths, while local water systems, polluted by sewage and industrial waste, made up 8 percent. Cancers, strokes, and heart and respiratory diseases are just some of the fatal health conditions that can result from exposure to pollution, the report says.

GAHP’s findings are based on World Health Organization data on global deaths from polluted air and water, as well as GAHP’s own analysis of deaths related to toxic chemical and industrial wastes in low-income countries.

GAHP’s members are concerned that the current draft of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the body’s plan for development assistance for the next 15 years, does not make addressing pollution a priority.

“The problem is that the current SDGs include mention only of air pollution in the health goal and ignore other causes like chemicals and waste,” said Fernando Lugris, ambassador and deputy director of Uruguay’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement. “Since the SDGs will determine what the world pays attention to and funds over the next fifteen years, the importance of having all forms of pollution addressed is enormous.  The SDGs set the agenda.  We need to make sure pollution is adequately covered.”

Funding is important, the report notes: The billions of dollars of international aid spent to address sanitation, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS have made significant improvements in the health of developing countries’ residents. The U.S. and other wealthy nations have largely eliminated their sources of life-threatening pollution through legislation, regulations and technology, GAHP says, and now need to transfer their expertise to lower-income countries so they can do the same.

But why should wealthy Western countries care about pollution in the developing world?

“Our economy is global, and so are the pollutants,” GAHP’s report notes.

Polluted air from newly-industrialized countries can blow into your hometown; mercury from mining and coal plants can find its way into the fish you’re having for dinner; and arsenic and other toxins may show up in the rice and other food in your pantry. Thus, addressing pollution in developing countries may not only help improve the health of families like Seynabou Mbengue’s; it may protect yours.

Image credit: Flickr/McKay Savage

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru