Energy & Environment

UN report: Pollution causing more deaths than first 18 months of COVID-19 pandemic

Pollution is dumped into a waterway

Pollution contributes to more deaths around the world than COVID-19, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations.

In the report, UN Special Rapporteur David Boyd wrote that at least 9 million premature deaths are caused by pollution or environmental toxins, twice the death toll of the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Altogether, the report puts the number of worldwide deaths from pollution-related diseases at one in six, more than 15 times the number of deaths from violence.

The single biggest environmental contributor to premature deaths is air pollution, which the report estimates causes some 7 million deaths annually. Pollution-related deaths are overwhelmingly concentrated in low- and middle-income nations, which account for more than 90 percent of such deaths. Frontline workers are also at particular risk, with more than 750,000 dying per year to exposure to substances such as exhaust, asbestos and particulate matter.

Addressing these issues can be a challenge, Boyd wrote, because they stem from a combination of established and emerging threats. For example, lead exposure is still linked to some 1 million deaths a year, while further hazards are emerging in connection to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), so-called “forever chemicals.”

However, the implications of the findings go beyond these pollutants’ impacts on individual people’s health, the report states. They are also interconnected with other environmental crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

“The chemical industry exacerbates the climate emergency by consuming more than 10 per cent of fossil fuels produced globally and emitting an estimated 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Global warming contributes to the release and remobilization of hazardous pollutants from melting glaciers and thawing permafrost,” Boyd wrote. “Pollution and toxic substances are also one of the five main drivers of the catastrophic decline in biodiversity, with particularly negative impacts on pollinators, insects, freshwater and marine ecosystems (including coral reefs) and bird populations.”

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