The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our alarmingly polluted environment is killing 12.6 million each year, WHO warns

A man sprinkles water on his daughter's head as he takes care of her after she was diagnosed of malaria in Kanchanpur hospital in Tripura state, India, on June 16, 2014. (EPA/STR)

The World Health Organization has put a number on the people estimated to have died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment and it's big -- 12.6 million. That number represents one in four of all deaths globally and underscores the devastating impact of the chemicals and waste we've been putting into the air, water and earth since the end of World War II.

The WHO said deaths due to non-communicable diseases -- which include heart disease and cancer and are related to exposure to pollution -- now make up 8.2 million or nearly two-thirds of the total deaths. Deaths from infectious diseases -- such as malaria and diarrhea -- due to unsafe water and lack of sanitation represent one-third and are on the decline.

[Global cancer hotspots: Burden of disease is shifting to developing world]

"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," WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said.

The report is part of an effort by world leaders over the past year to inform the public of the close link between seemingly theoretical issues like climate change to something an individual can relate to -- their own health. In March of last year, the director of China's meteorological administration gave a speech that was widely shared on social media in the country warning of the "severe threat" of climate change on the spread of mosquito-borne diseases and those that afflict children who play in infected waters. In the United States, President Obama convened a summit on health and climate change in June. "We know climate change is not a distant threat, we are already seeing impacts in communities across the country," the White House said, citing the rising rates of asthma in the United States.

In December, these and other countries joined together to ratify a universal pact to slow global warming -- the most ambitious ever undertaken.

While every corner of the world has been impacted by changes in the environment, those in low- and middle-income countries in Asia that are manufacturing hubs are the worst affected. The WHO's South-East Asia Region, which includes India and Bangladesh, and its Western Pacific Region, which includes China, had 7.3 million of the total deaths.

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Most of the deaths were in children under 5 years of age and the elderly. In the young, it was mostly due to respiratory infections and diarrheal diseases and in the old it was due to cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart disease.

Below is a breakdown from the report for leading causes of environment-related deaths for all age groups:

  • Stroke – 2.5 million deaths annually
  • Ischaemic heart disease – 2.3 million deaths annually
  • Unintentional Injuries (e.g. road traffic deaths) – 1.7 million deaths annually
  • Cancers – 1.7 million deaths annually
  • Chronic Respiratory Diseases – 1.4 million deaths annually
  • Diarrheal Diseases – 846,000 deaths annually
  • Respiratory Infections – 567,000 deaths annually
  • Neonatal Conditions – 270,000 deaths annually
  • Malaria – 259,000 deaths annually
  • Intentional injuries (e.g. suicides) – 246,000 deaths annually

This post has been updated.

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