The air you breathe, the water you drink and the surroundings where you work, play and sleep may go largely unnoticed on a day-to-day basis. But—visible or not—they constitute your living environment. Now, new research from the World Health Organization (WHO) shows how your environment could be killing you.
Those countries may lack the resources to implement some of the regulations that have saved lives elsewhere. Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific Region experience the most deaths, with 3.8 million and 3.5 million deaths occurring in two regions respectively.
Regionally, the report finds that low- and middle-income countries in the WHO Southeast Asia and Western Pacific Regions had the largest environment-related disease burden in 2012, with a total of 7.3 million deaths, most attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution.
WHO examined a range of risk factors, including pollution, chemical exposures, ultraviolet radiation and the direct effects of climate change like drought or floods. These environmental exposures may have contributed to a known 100 or more diseases and injuries, such as heart disease and other cardiovascular problems. The new data pertains to 2012 and is an update to the previous report’s figures from 2006.
There’s some good news here. The report suggests that deaths related to infectious diseases like malaria are declining. Thanks to programmes that have helped support improved sanitation and clean water, as well as improved access to immunisation and essential medical treatments, these kinds of health issues are slowly receding.
However, the analysis found that 23 per cent of all global deaths, and 26 per cent of deaths among children under the age of five, can still be attributed to preventable environmental factors. Broader trends show that the elderly and the very young continue to be most at risk from environmental health stresses. Alarmingly, deaths due to non-communicable diseases—stroke, heart disease and cancers tied to air pollution and second-hand tobacco smoke — have risen significantly compared to previous assessments.
For instance, using clean technologies and fuels for domestic cooking, heating and lighting would reduce acute respiratory infections, chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and burns. Increasing access to safe water and adequate sanitation and promoting hand washing would further reduce diarrhoeal diseases. Tobacco smoke-free legislation reduces exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke, and thereby also reduces cardiovascular diseases and respiratory infections. Improving urban transit and urban planning, and building energy-efficient housing would reduce air pollution-related diseases and promote safe physical activity.
Many cities around the world are already implementing many of these cost-effective measures. Curitiba, Brazil has invested heavily in slum upgrading, waste recycling, and a popular "bus rapid transit" system which is integrated with green spaces and pedestrian walkways to encourage walking and cycling.
Many cities in the world have already taken significant measures to protect the environment. In 2011, the city of Cape Town, South Africa, launched a new bus rapid transit system called "MyCiti" that connects to a network of cycling paths and upgraded walkways, making it possible to walk or cycle to a bus stop in an integrated fashion.