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How pollution takes millions of lives

How pollution takes millions of lives

As the rest of the world watches. With 1 in 7 deaths being from pollution, why isn't there a call to arms?

Pollution is the leading cause of premature death in the world, particularly in smaller low and middle income countries - killing more people than smoking and passive smoke combined. A 2020 report on premature death from pollution by Global Alliance on Health and Pollution shows that exposure to toxic air, water, lead, soil and chemicals kills at least 8.3 million people around the world every year - and the real figure is probably much higher.

An awareness that approximately one in seven deaths in the world is pollution-related should in itself be an immediate call to arms for civil society and government actors alike. Actions to mitigate pollution and implement solutions should be urgently undertaken. However, despite pollution’s substantial effects on human health (as well as on the economy and the environment), pollution mitigation remains in large part neglected.

What is known

At least 5 million of the premature deaths from pollution are related to air pollution and  all deaths are spread unevenly amongst the countries of the world. In fact, the top 10 countries most affected are responsible for two thirds of those deaths. Because of population, India and China top the list with 4.2 million between them, but a closer examination of deaths per 100,000 people puts Chad, Central African Republic and North Korea in the first 3 places.

Global Alliance on Health and Pollution report that pollution kills three times as many people a year as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. It also kills 15 times as many people each year as war and other forms of violence. At least 90 percent of all premature deaths from pollution occur in low and middle-income countries.

The unknown - Informal Sector

Almost 70 percent of the workforce in the Asia-Pacific region perform jobs in the informal economy.  Although it is difficult to generalize about the quality and nature of informal economy work, some sectors, such as mining and used lead-acid battery and e-waste recycling, are known for their dangerous working conditions, lack of worker protections, and environmental pollution. Informal sector work is not government regulated and, therefore, is often insufficiently tracked and monitored.

This greatly restricts the availability of reliable data and as such the deaths in these areas are not counted in this report.

Used Lead Acid Battery Recycling & Small Scale Gold Mining

Between 6 to 16 million people are believed to be exposed to dangerous levels of lead each year at informal Used Lead Acid Battery Recycling sites. Lead-acid batteries consist of a plastic case that holds lead plates covered with a lead paste and submerged in dilute sulfuric acid.

Workers often break open the cases with hand axes or hammers and smelt the lead over open-air fires, often in crowded shopping areas or in residential backyards. Toxic emissions and dust settle into the immediate surroundings, including waterways and soil. Uncovered and unprotected battery waste leaches lead into groundwater and community waterways.

An estimated 14 to 19 million artisanal and small-scale gold miners work in more than 70 countries. Mercury is widely used in informal, small-scale mining during processing to separate the precious metal from ore. Mercury binds to the gold, separating it from other minerals, which are washed away during processing.

The remaining mercury-gold amalgam is then heated, often with a blow torch. Under intense heat, mercury evaporates, leaving behind pure gold. Artisanal miners are often directly exposed to mercury vapors through the amalgam burning process.10 Anywhere from 5 to 60 grams of mercury are used in the recovery of just one gram of gold.

Climate Change

The relationship between climate change and pollution could vastly increase the number of people who come into contact with pollution. The fluctuation between weather extremes can increase the potential for pollutants to mobilize and enter our air and water.

Floods, droughts, increased sea levels, reduced bio diversity are all impacted in the complex relationship among pollution, health and climate change, amplifying the risk of toxic exposures. 

Read the full report at Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.

Images: Global Alliance on Health and Pollution
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