In one year, a population the size of New York City is exterminated through a global epidemic that is within our power to prevent: dirty air and water.
According to a major new study published in The Lancet, there were an estimated 9 million deaths worldwide in a single year, 2015, resulting from air and water pollution. Roughly 6.5 million of the deaths were due to airborne pollution, including emissions and toxins linked to respiratory and heart disease. The rest were primarily due to water pollution, resulting from both waterborne disease and poor sanitation.
While air and water pollution are reaching epidemic levels, the pathology at the root of the crisis isn’t medical but social: Poverty and inequality drive the industries that create poisoned habitats, unbreathable air, and catastrophic weather. According to the study, “92 percent of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries.” What’s more, the study found that “the health effects of pollution are most frequent and severe among the poor and the marginalised.”
According to researcher Philip Landrigan, the main factors driving pollution are typically viewed as the cost of doing business in rapidly developing countries: “globalization of industry coupled with uncontrolled urbanization, the global spread of petroleum-powered motor vehicles and the proliferation of industrial, chemically intensive agriculture.” So the heaviest price for the pursuit of growth falls on the people who arguably benefit the least from their country’s drive for development.
Historically, pollution’s health and disease impacts have been tied to multinational investment in industries that pollute poorer regions through extractive oil and mining operations and export-driven manufacturing, such as South Africa’s toxic mining pits or monocrop plantation agriculture. Today, Landrigan observes, as “rapidly industrializing middle-income countries are aspiring to advance their own standard of living…a substantial fraction of their industrial production is for domestic consumption.” As more Chinese and Indian households adopt “Western” lifestyles, with rich diets and fast cars, they also generate more homegrown pollution.
On balance, however, global data shows that the populations that suffer the most are simply too poor to afford the resources and technology that rich (and high-polluting) countries have developed to insulate themselves from pollution’s worst effects.