President's Blog | Wasted Health: Pollution is Killing Millions

23 Oct 2017 -

Two years after ISWA’s Report “Wasted Health: The tragic case of dumpsites” that described the linkages between the world’s dumpsites and human health, a new landmark report that was published recently by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health reveals that pollution kills at least nine million people and costs trillions of dollars every year. This report stems from the most comprehensive global analysis to date, and warns the crisis “threatens the continuing survival of human societies”. A comparison of the two reports reveals important common conclusions and concepts, highlighting that the health impacts of pollution, as well as the health impacts of dumpsites, remain rather underestimated. Both reports concluded that the assessed health impacts are probably the minimum ones that can be estimated with very conservative assumptions.

Parallels Between Lancet Commission on pollution and health and ISWA's Wasted Health


The new report estimates that diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015—16% of all deaths worldwide — a staggering number and three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. In the most severely affected countries, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four.


ISWA’s report highlighted that the health risks from the exposure of 8.6 million people at the pollution of 373 toxic waste dumpsites in India, Indonesia and the Philippines could cause a loss of around 829,000 years of good health because of disease, disability or early death. By comparison, malaria in these countries, whose combined population is nearly 1.6 billion, causes the loss of 725,000 healthy years.


The authors of the Lancet’s report believe the figure of 9 million deaths per year could be an underestimate by some million people at least, since research on the impacts of some substances, like plastic, has not yet concluded. Scientists are still discovering links between pollution and ill health, such as the connection between air pollution and dementia, diabetes and kidney disease. Furthermore, lack of data on many toxic metals and chemicals could not be included in the new analysis. Available data does not include lead’s impact from toxic sites like Flint, in Michigan, US, or Kabwe, the world’s most polluted city in Zambia. Yet these populations experience enormous health impacts.


Lancet’s report estimated the welfare losses from pollution at US $4.6 trillion a year, equivalent to more than 6% of global GDP. According “The Guardian”, Professor Philip Landrigan commented that “Those costs are so massive they can drag down the economy of countries that are trying to get ahead,” said Landrigan. “We always hear ‘we can’t afford to clean up pollution’ – I say we can’t afford not to clean it up.”


ISWA’s report assessed that, in addition to environmental impacts, the financial cost of the health impacts due to open dumpsites runs into the tens of billions of US$ annually. The relevant cost was calculated only for Brazil’s dumpsites at 0.5 – 0.8 billion US$ annually. 


According Lancet’s report, low-income and rapidly industrializing countries are the worst affected, suffering 92% of pollution-related deaths, with Somalia suffering the highest rate of pollution deaths. India, where both traditional and modern pollution are some of the most severe, has by far the largest number of pollution deaths at 2.5m. China is second with 1.8m and Russia and the US are also in the top 10.


ISWA’s report, based on the data presented in the Waste Atlas report for the biggest dumpsites, assessed that 64 million people’s lives (equal to population of France) are directly affected by the world’s 50 largest dumpsites. All those dumpsites are in low and middle income countries. The report A Roadmap for closing waste dumpsites estimated 750 deaths due to accidents in dumpsites only within the first 6 months of 2016!


Lancet’s report highlights that pollution is not the unavoidable consequence of economic development, and that it is much more important to formulate sound laws, policies, and regulations to control pollution than to wait for an economy to reach a magical tipping point that will solve the problems of environmental degradation and pollution- related disease.


Similarly, a key-element of ISWA’s global initiative to close the world’s biggest dumpsites was the assumption that we can’t expect the poorest countries of the world to become economically developed to manage their waste in a proper environmentally sound way, we have to act as catalysts of change now and create a global partnership that will undertake the task to stimulate the closure of the riskiest dumpsites.


This year, the UN Environment Assembly, the world's highest-level decision-making body on the environment, will gather in Nairobi, Kenya, from 4-6 December 2017 under the overarching theme of pollution. ISWA, in cooperation with other NGOs and international stakeholders, is trying to push for a Political Declaration that will recognize the importance of sound waste management and a Resolution that will address the need to close the world’s biggest dumpsites as a crucial step towards the Sustainability Development Goals. We will mobilize all our members to prepare the ground for decisions that will view dumpsites as a global health emergency and stimulate suitable policy responses.


This is the perfect timing, we simply can’t afford to lose it.    

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