According to a report, “Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments: A Global Assessment Of The Burden Of Disease From Environmental Risks,” published in March 2016, by World Health Organisation (WHO), about 12.6 million human deaths are as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment. More than 100 diseases and injuries are caused by environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change, and ultraviolet radiation.
These environmental risks take their greatest toll on young children and older people, with children under 5 and adults aged 50 to 75 years as majority. Yearly, the deaths of 1.7 million children under 5 and 4.9 million adults aged 50 to 75 could be prevented through better environmental management.
Lower respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases mostly impact children under 5, while older people are most impacted by NCDs. According to the WHO report, in the last decade, deaths due to noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), mostly attributable to air pollution (including exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke), amount to as much as 8.2 million of these deaths.
NCDs, such as stroke, heart disease, cancers and chronic respiratory disease, now amount to nearly two-thirds of the total deaths caused by unhealthy environments. Also, deaths from infectious diseases, such as diarrhoea and malaria, often related to poor water, sanitation and waste management, have declined. Increases in access to safe water and sanitation have been key contributors to this decline, alongside better access to immunization, insecticide-treated mosquito nets and essential medicines.
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Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, emphasizes that “A healthy environment underpins a healthy population, and 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.” Regionally, low- and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East 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.
More so, low- and middle-income countries bear the greatest environmental burden in all types of diseases and injuries, however for certain NCDs, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers, the per capita disease burden can also be relatively high in high-income countries.
A further breakdown of the regional analysis shows that; 2.2 million deaths annually in Africa, 847 000 deaths annually in Region of the Americas, 854 000 deaths annually in Eastern Mediterranean Region, 1.4 million deaths annually in Europe, 3.8 million deaths annually in South-East Asia, and 3.5 million deaths annually in Western Pacific Region.
The report finds that the vast majority of environment-related deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke and ischaemic heart disease;
- Stroke – 2.5 million deaths annually
- Ischaemic heart disease – 2.3 million deaths annually
- Unintentional injuries (such as road traffic deaths) – 1.7 million deaths annually
- Cancers – 1.7 million deaths annually
- Chronic respiratory diseases – 1.4 million deaths annually
- Diarrhoeal diseases – 846 000 deaths annually
- Respiratory infections – 567 000 deaths annually
- Neonatal conditions – 270 000 deaths annually
- Malaria – 259 000 deaths annually
- Intentional injuries (such as suicides) – 246 000 deaths annually
The report emphasizes cost-effective measures that countries can take to reverse the upward trend of environment-related disease and deaths. These include reducing the use of solid fuels for cooking and increasing access to low-carbon energy technologies. Also, 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 diarrhea-related diseases.
Cardiovascular diseases and respiratory infections can be reduced by tobacco smoke-free legislation which limits exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke. Building energy-efficient housing and improving urban transit and urban planning, would reduce air pollution-related diseases and promote safe physical activity.
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