12.6m deaths per annum attributable to unhealthy environment

An estimated 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012, nearly, one in four of total global deaths according to new estimates from WHO.

Environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change, and ultraviolet radiation contribute to more than 100 diseases and injuries, according to a WHO report released from Geneva.

The second edition of the report, “Preventing disease through healthy environments: a global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks”, reveals that since the report was first published a decade ago, deaths due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), mostly attributable to air pollution including exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke, amount to as much as 8.2 million of these deaths. NCDs such as stroke, heart disease, cancers and chronic respiratory disease now amount to nearly two-third of the total deaths caused by unhealthy environments.

At the same time, deaths from infectious diseases such as diarrhea and malaria often related to poor water, sanitation and waste management have declined. Increases in access to safe water and sanitation have been key contributors to this decline alongside better access to immunisation, insecticide-treated mosquito nets and essential medicines.

WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan said, “A healthy environment underpins a healthy population.” He said, “If countries do not take actions to make environments where people live and work healthy, millions will continue to become ill and die too young.” The report emphasises cost-effective measures that countries can take to reverse the upward trend of environment-related diseases and deaths. These include reducing the use of solid fuels for cooking and increasing access to low-carbon energy technologies.

WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health Director Dr Maria Neira said, “There is an urgent need for investment in strategies to reduce environmental risks in our cities, homes and workplaces.” She said, “Such investments can significantly reduce the rising worldwide burden of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, injuries, and cancers and lead to immediate savings in healthcare costs.”

The report found that environmental risks take their greatest toll on young children and older people, with children under five years of age and adults aged between 50 to 75 years most impacted. Yearly, the deaths of 1.7 million children under five years of age and 4.9 million adults aged between 50 to 75 could be prevented through better environmental management. Lower respiratory infections and diarrhea diseases mostly impact children under five years of age while older people are most impacted by NCDs. Regionally, the report finds that low and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions had the largest environment-related disease burden in 2012 with a total of 7.3 million deaths, most attributable to in-door and out-door air pollution. Further regional statistics listed in the report include 2.2 million deaths annually in African region, 847000 deaths annually in regions of the America, 854000 deaths annually in Eastern Mediterranean region, 1.4 million deaths annually in European region, 3.8 million deaths annually in South-East Asia region and 3.5 million deaths annually in Western Pacific region.

Low and middle-income countries bear the greatest environmental burden in all types of diseases and injuries. However, for certain NCDs, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers, the per capita disease burden can also be relatively high in high-income countries. The report cites proven strategies for improving the environment and preventing diseases. For instance, using clean technologies and fuels for domestic cooking, heating and lighting would reduce acute respiratory infections, chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and burns. Increasing access to safe water and adequate sanitation and promoting hand washing would further reduce diarrhea diseases.

Tobacco smoke-free legislation reduces exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke and thereby also reduces cardiovascular diseases and respiratory infections. Improving urban transit, urban planning and building energy-efficient housing would reduce air pollution-related diseases and promote safe physical activity.

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