Death By Environment: The Boomerang Effect

The WHO released a report this week that suggested that nearly 1/4 of all human mortality (22.4%) in 2012 was secondary to unhealthy environments.

We have known for some time that planetary health has an important impact on human health. It effects not only the quantity of years an average planetary citizen lives, but also the quality of those years. This, in turn, can be a major determinant of human productivity and ingenuity, and an important factor in our efforts to maintain safe, stable and secure human societies.

When examining global human resources, social scientists often begin with the number of births and the number of deaths per 1000 in various geographic localities around the world. “Refreshing” the human population is essential to revitalizing the human workforce, and in maintaining the most productive demographic age balance. The reality is that we rely on new healthy workers to support the growing needs of aging populations who consume more health and social resources as they grow older.

The WHO has added a new wrinkle to their most recent studies by attempting to quantify the human mortality costs of an unhealthy environment. Environmental degradation increases the chronic burden of cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, as well as all types of cancer. Weak environmental laws and infrastructure also are  responsible for deadly poisoning by toxins and outbreaks of infectious diseases. Finally, extreme environmental degradation can be associate with collapse of adequate food and water support, mass migration and warfare and anarchy.

What do we know about the 56 million who died worldwide in 2012?  Let’s break it down. On average that year, just under 8 (7.99) people died per 1000 citizens during the course of 2012. That figure remained roughly the same in the 2014 readings. The highest death rates occured in South Africa (17.49/1000) and in the Ukraine (15.72), and the lowest occurred in Qatar (1.53/1000) and  United Arab Emirates (1.99/1000). The U.S. came in at 8.15/1000, just below Switzerland (8.1/1000), but higher than Canada(8.31/1000) and the U.K.(9.34/1000), Japan (9.38/1000) and Sweden (9.45/1000). But before we engage in too much self-congratulation, realize that higher mortality rates often reflect aging demographics rather than generalized poor health.

Going back to the UN report, here are a few interesting findings:

1. 12.6 million of the 56.4 million deaths worldwide were related to “living in an unhealthy environment”.

2. “Environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change, and ultraviolet radiation, reportedly contribute to more than 100 diseases and injuries”, according to the report.

3. 2/3 of the “environmental deaths” (8.2 million) were the result of non-communicable disease such as stroke, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, and cancer. In this arena, indoor and outdoor pollution, including the use of fossil fuels for domestic cooking, heating, and lighting, and secondary cigarette smoke, were the major offenders.

4. “Regionally, the report finds, 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.”

Children under five and adults age 50 to 75 were the most likely to suffer an “environmental death”. Approximately 1.7 million deaths in children and 4.9 million in adults were deemed preventable were appropriate health policies to be implemented.

What policies? The WHO report lays out a range of actions. Here are a few of their suggestions:

“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.”