We learned it at school: changing the order of the addends does not change the sum. Mathematics lends itself well to summarizing the conclusions of the new report on pollution drawn up by the special commission of “The Lancet”. Although the contribution of the different sources has varied, even in 2019 – as in 2015 – the pollution caused nine million premature deaths worldwide. In short, “despite the enormous health, social and economic impact, pollution prevention remains largely neglected on the international agenda. The initiatives and funding to combat it have increased only minimally compared to 2015”, underlines Richard Fuller, co-director of the commission and first author of the document.
Like the previous report, the one published this year also drew on the boundless database of the Global Burden Disease program, updated in October 2020 for the entire year 2019. The scenario outlined by the researchers is therefore the snapshot of a historic year, its despite, as the last not to be affected by the pandemic and lockdown.
But let’s go in order. In all its various forms, pollution remains the largest environmental risk factor of premature death in the world, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Globally, it causes more than nine million deaths a year – one in six premature deaths. If we break down the phenomenon, we discover that air pollution alone is responsible for 6.7 million deaths, that is almost 75 percent of the total. Excluding the component indoorair pollution caused 4.5 million deaths in 2019, marking a seven percent increase from 4.2 million in 2015 and 55 percent from 2.9 million in 2000.
Towards an intergovernmental organization on pollution?
As already underlined by the most recent update of the air quality database held by the World Health Organization (WHO), almost the entire world population (99 percent) breathes air that exceeds the limits set by the same agency. The pollutants that cause most concern are the usual suspects: fine particles (PM2.5 and PM10) and nitrogen dioxide, the concentrations of which can reach astronomical values, especially in the metropolises of low- and middle-income countries.
On the other hand, the reduction in deaths attributable to domestic pollution and in particular to the use of solid fuels and kerosene for cooking – a custom that once again affects the poorest countries – makes the pill less bitter, allowing to equalize the overall budget for 2015.
Water and industrial pollution
The reduction of the more traditional forms of pollution also concerns water for domestic use, thanks to the progress made by many countries, especially African, in securing the water supply and spreading sanitation. Nonetheless, according to the WHO, 3.6 billion people still lack sanitation and two billion do not have safe water due to polluted aquifers. Overall, water pollution still causes 1.36 million premature deaths. The remaining one million deaths are caused by heterogeneous sources, among which occupational exposure to toxic substances stands out, with 870,000 victims.
The calculation of deaths caused by synthetic chemical pollutants escapes the previous classification since these substances can poison our health in many forms. Lead poisoning is an example of this: although nowadays it mainly concerns particular professional categories, this metal can also reach our body through the air – the so-called “red gasoline” has definitively abandoned the world market only last year – or through accidental ingestion of contaminated water and food.
Overall, premature deaths attributable to synthetic chemical pollutants increased from 0.9 million in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2015 to 1.8 million in 2019. Half of the deaths are attributable to lead.
The inequalities caused by pollution
According to the commission of “The Lancet”, the excess mortality caused by pollution in 2019 caused losses of 4.6 trillion dollars, equal to 6.2 percent of the global gross domestic product. The study highlights the profound inequity of pollution: 92 percent of premature deaths, as well as the greatest economic losses, concern low- and middle-income countries.
This does not mean that the problem does not concern us, far from it. Since 2008 – that is, since the Community directive on air quality has existed – up to today, our country has been sanctioned several times by the Community bodies for being systematically non-compliant.
According to the estimates of the European Environment Agency, in 2019 Italy was competing with Germany for the continental primacy of premature deaths due to pollution: almost 64,000, mainly due to high concentrations of fine particles, ozone and nitrogen dioxide. “Even today, pollution is too often considered a local problem, to be addressed through regional or national regulation. Instead it is a global threat, which therefore requires a global response,” says Rachael Kupka, executive director of the Global Alliance on Health. and Pollution which was involved in the study.
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