Pollution was responsible for nine million deaths around the world in 2015, and although many were in industrializing countries, Canada has not been immune to the harm, a newly released study says.
It’s a toll that’s three times higher than deaths from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined and 15 times higher than from wars and other violence, according to the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, whose findings were released on Thursday in the medical journal The Lancet.
The commission is a pollution research effort uniting Lancet, the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution and the Icahn School of Medicine in New York.
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The deaths from illnesses and diseases linked to the pollutants are considered premature, the report says, because they would otherwise not have occurred without exposure to the various forms of pollution.
“Nearly 92 per cent of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries and, in countries at every income level, disease caused by pollution is most prevalent among minorities and the marginalized,” the study said.
India, many countries in Africa and some South American countries have been hit particularly hard, said Bruce Lanphear, a health-sciences professor at Simon Fraser University, one of 40 commissioners involved in the two-year research project.
“This is the first global estimate of the total burden of disease due to pollution, and we’re not just talking about air pollution,” Mr. Lanphear said.
The researchers refer to air pollution from such sources as fossil-fuel combustion and the burning of biomass. They also refer to water and soil pollution and toxic-chemical pollution at work sites.
“It’s very likely, if not certain, that we have underestimated the impact of pollution because in some countries, it’s very hard to get data. In other cases, the evidence on the increase in death, disability and disease is still coming out,” Mr. Lanphear said.
Mr. Lanphear said that while air pollution and other pollutants are more problematic in industrializing countries, they are still a sizable burden in a country such as Canada.
“We regulate toxic chemicals in Canada as though there are safe levels or thresholds, but what we’re finding is that is not true for some of the most well-studied toxic chemicals,” he said, citing asbestos, fine airborne particulates and benzene.
He said Canada is “absolutely not” in the clear on the issue. For example, he said heart disease can result from air pollution, including second-hand tobacco smoke, and malignant mesotheiloma can result from past exposures to asbestos.
Mr. Lanphear said pending plans to reform the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, first enacted in 1988 and revised in 1999, might provide the opportunity to bolster measures for dealing with pollution. The act governs toxic substances, vehicle and engine emissions, among other factors affecting the environment.
The research also says pollution-related diseases are annually responsible for $4.6-trillion (U.S.) in “welfare losses,” defined as economic costs beyond disease and treatment such as loss of productivity. Pollution, says the research, is also responsible for 1.7 per cent of annual health-care spending in high-income countries.
Over all, the Lancet study calls for measures to quantify and then curb pollution, which it describes as an “unintended consequence of unhealthy and unsustainable development.”
“If we want to substantially reduce the global environmental burden of disease, we need to act further upstream and address the drivers and sources of pollution to ensure that development policies and investments are healthy and sustainable by design.”
Pollution, say the authors, can “no longer be viewed as an isolated environmental issue, but is a transcendent problem that affects the health and well-being of entire societies.”