Brace yourself, the number is as unsettling as it is big: 12.6 million.
That’s how many people are dying each year from unhealthy work and home environments, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO).
In order to understand the full extent of that figure, one must first understand another: Worldwide, an estimated total of 50 million people die annually. Knowing that, suddenly 12.6 million becomes that much more frightening. What this means is that 1 person out of every 4 dies as a result of their unhealthy work or home environment. Worse still, what this number represents is the devastating impact that harmful chemicals, substances, and pollutants, we, as global citizens, have been putting into our air, water, and soil, and, thus, into our bodies, too.
According to the WHO, environmental hazards, such as pollution (in air, water, and earth), chemical exposures, climate change, and ultraviolet radiation, contribute to the development of more than 100 diseases and injuries.
This is the environment that people are born into – and for many of us, we did not have a choice.
What the WHO’s New Numbers Are Saying
Heart disease, cancer, and respiratory disease – or, non-communicable diseases (diseases that are non-transmittable from person-to-person) – now make up 8.2 million, or nearly two-thirds, of the total environment-related death toll. Four million deaths are caused from infectious diseases, such as diarrhea and malaria – often related to poor water, sanitation, or waste management – and that number has declined. The trend suggests that access to safe water and sanitation, along with better access to immunization, have helped bring down the amount of infectious-disease-related deaths.
But it is disheartening to consider that while one figure declines another one rises – and by a lot. While unhealthy work and home environments account for 23 percent of all annual deaths, they account for 26 percent of the deaths in children under the age of 5-years-old. Environmental risks are attacking the world’s most vulnerable: the young and the elderly (men and women between the ages of 50 and 75).
Developing nations in South East Asia, the Western Pacific, and Africa are the most impacted by environmental toxins, accounting for a combined 9.5 million deaths out of the 12.6 million – or, 75 percent. This data suggests that the world’s most-polluted nations – China, India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh – are the greatest sufferers from environmental-related illnesses.
How People’s Dirty & Unsafe Environments Are Killing Them
Looking across more than 100 diseases and injury categories, the vast majority of environment-related deaths are cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke and ischemic heart disease. Toxin-derived cancers and respiratory diseases also kill millions worldwide. Here’s the top-5 breakdown from the WHO’s report on environmental-related deaths across all age groups:
- Stroke: 2.5 million deaths annually
- Ischemic Heart Disease: 2.3 million deaths annually
- Unintentional Injuries Related to Environment (such as road traffic death): 1.7 million deaths annually
- Cancers: 1.7 million deaths annually
- Chronic Respiratory Diseases: 1.4 million deaths annually
The underlying message? Strokes, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and respiratory diseases can all easily be traced back to the health and safety of one’s living and working environment. If one is immersed in toxic substances on a daily basis, it should be no big surprise that that person will develop serious – and deadly – health problems as a result.
The Equation Is Simple: A Healthy Environment = A Healthy Population
Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO’s Director-General, perhaps said it best:
“A healthy environment underpins a healthy population. 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.”
Two cases-in-point: tobacco and asbestos. On the home front, cigarette smoking kills 480,000 Americans each year and asbestos kills between 12,000 – 15,000 Americans from asbestos-triggered diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. When it comes to the carcinogenic mineral fiber, asbestos, a vast majority of these innocent, hardworking people were exposed to the mineral while they were at their places of work. Likewise, it’s incredibly easy to draw a line from cigarette smoking – or secondhand exposure to tobacco smoke – straight to lung cancer.
The environmental risks are real – and they’re easy to spot.
Other known toxins, such as lead, silica dust, mercury, and methylene chloride are still widely abundant, too, and lead to many diseases rampant in the construction workforce. In the U.S. alone, over 80,000 chemicals used commonly in manufacturing are not registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It’s reasonable to assume that many of these unregistered chemicals are causing unquantifiable harm to American citizens, and potentially leading to cancers, chronic respiratory problems, heart disease, and death.
How to Stop These Numbers from Growing Out-of-Control
The WHO’s report cites proven strategies for lowering the 12.6 million annual death toll and for reducing and preventing non-communicable diseases. Some of its suggestions include:
- Using clean technologies and fuels for domestic cooking, heating, and lighting to reduce respiratory infections and diseases.
- Increasing access to safe water and adequate sanitation to deter the spread of diarrhea diseases.
- Promote on a nation-by-nation level anti-tobacco and smoke-free environmental legislation to reduce exposure to smoke and secondhand smoke, thereby reducing cardiovascular and lung diseases and cancers.
- Banning asbestos and limiting use of other known environmental carcinogens to reduce the amount of asbestos-related diseases and cases of mesothelioma.
- Improving city transit systems and urban planning by building and promoting energy-efficient housing and transportation to lower air pollution-related diseases.
Actions need to be taken domestically and internationally, in order to reduce the amount of environment-related deaths and illnesses. On a legislative level, there are many measures that the U.S. can take right now to keep America’s work environments clean, such as reforming the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), with changes that would force the EPA to monitor the over 80,000 unregulated chemicals and also pave the way for the EPA to ban asbestos.
What all of this new data reflects, is a piece of knowledge that we’ve already known for years: That if we pass common-sense legislation and live a little bit cleaner, we will reap the overall health benefits. The WHO’s report echoes this sentiment, concluding its 175-page report quite simply: “The main message emerging from this new comprehensive global assessment is that premature death and disease can be prevented through healthier environments.”