The leading cause of death in developing countries might surprise you

Richard Fuller via Ensia

It’s time to pay attention to a startling stealth killer

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What’s the leading cause of death in low- and middle-income countries?

A.  malnutrition and undernutrition

B.  tuberculosis, malaria & HIV/AIDS

C.  pollution

If you guessed “C,” you got it. Exposures to polluted soil, water and air (both household and ambient) killed 8.4 million people in these countries in 2012.

Another statistic worth pondering: That 8.4 million is out of about 9 million people killed by pollution worldwide in 2012. In other words, this is not a “rich country” problem. This is a problem contained to the developing world.

To put this in perspective, World Health Organization statistics show that 56 million people died in 2012 — that’s every person who passed away on the planet, whether from car accidents, suicides, old age, cancer, hospital errors, lightning strike, infectious diseases, parachute failures, war or any number of other reasons. So, pollution killed nearly one in seven of them.

Contaminated outdoor air accounted for 3.7 million deaths. Another 4.2 million people died from particulates exposure in indoor air from cooking stoves. About 1 million died from chemicals and contaminated soil and water. And 840,000 succumbed to poor sanitation. All of these data come directly from WHO’s website and databases, except for the soil statistics, which are sourced from more recent numbers (likely understated) from the Global Alliance for Health and Pollution.

In the same year, 2012, 625,000 people died from malaria, 1.5 million from HIV/AIDS and 930,000 from tuberculosis. That’s one-third the number of people that pollution kills, and yet this troika of terrible diseases attracts over $20 billion per year from international charities and governments.

Slow and Indirect

It’s important to note that pollution rarely kills people directly or quickly. Instead, it causes heart disease, chest infections, cancers, respiratory diseases or diarrhea. Pollution acts as a catalyst, increasing the rates of these diseases above normal. For this reason, WHO considers pollution a risk factor — a threat to human health similar to obesity, smoking, malnutrition or poor exercise. But pollution is the king of all risk factors. Worldwide, its fatality numbers dwarf those caused by any other risk factor in any other context.

It’s hard to imagine just how bad it can be. Try, though, to imagine this scenario:

You wake up each day on the dirt floor of a shack you and your family lashed together with cast-off materials from a nearby construction site for a five-star hotel. Your husband works 70 hours a week sorting chemicals in a badly run pesticides factory. Lately, he’s come home coughing up blood. He looks thinner and more exhausted each week, and you want to tell him to stop, but how can you? The pennies he earns are the only things feeding your kids.

So you head to the local pond with your plastic bucket. The water you scoop from the pond is brown and stinks of human waste, but there’s nothing else to drink. You try straining it through cheesecloth, but it doesn’t do much good. Meanwhile, the factory next door to your slum, the one the government recently shut down, has started operating again — but only at night. Its chimneys pump out serpents of thick smoke, and there’s no way of knowing what’s burning. Last week, your eldest child started coughing through the night. The rest of your children are sickly and slow to learn even the most basic concepts. None of your friends or family can help you since, curiously, almost everyone in your neighborhood has the same problems.

Our economy is global and so are the pollutants it generates.

You are one of the poisoned poor, without voice and without hope. Regulations that might exist to combat the conditions are never enforced. You cannot simply pick up and move to another town — it took you years to establish yourself to this extent. And anyway, where exactly would you go? Every village shares this plight. Like the rest of the world’s underprivileged, you have become cannon fodder in the ongoing war of growth.

How can we fix this problem?

Our economy is global and so are the pollutants it generates. Contaminated air from China can now be measured in other countries. Mercury from gold mining and coal plants can be found in fish, and arsenic has been found in rice.

Many highly polluting industries have moved from developed countries to poor countries with less environmental regulation and technology to manage and remediate chemicals. Clean technologies and green growth are possible for emerging economies and can prevent decades of future contamination that will harm us all. Western nations have had success in cleaning up pollution and can now transfer technology and funding to low- and middle-income countries.

Of critical importance is making sure pollution is included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which look at how to achieve future development sustainably after the current Millennium Development Goals expire this year.

Prioritizing the prevention and cleanup of pollution will not only save lives, but also mitigate climate change and reduce threats to biodiversity. Glancing through the program priorities of major international organizations, the low priority of pollution is startling, given its impact. The likely reason for this is a lack of awareness, as well as not knowing where to begin to address this complex set of problems.

Of critical importance is making sure pollution is included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which look at how to achieve future development sustainably after the current Millennium Development Goals expire this year and include topics such as ending poverty, promoting sustainable agriculture, ensuring equitable education and more. The current draft does not include a goal for pollution on its own, although pollution is included in the health goal. That text — sub-goal 3.9 — currently calls to reduce death and disability from all types of pollution. This language needs to stay in the final text, because the SDGs will define international and national efforts for the coming years.

The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution is galvanizing resources to help low- and middle-income countries address priority pollution problems. In addition to education on all forms of pollution, GAHP helps countries:

— identify and assess toxic pollutant threats, especially for contaminated sites

— create a planning process to prioritize action for problems posing the greatest risk to human health

— implement solutions to save lives.

The technology and knowledge exists in wealthy countries to address this health and economic threat. Solutions can be implemented in low- and middle-incomes countries for a fraction of the cost spent in the West addressing legacy toxic pollutants from industrialization.

Which means, pollution is not inevitable. It is a problem that is solvable, in our lifetime. View Ensia homepage

Caring About Nature is… Depressing

I’m reposting this blog because this topic has recently been a recurring discussion in my field and I know professionals that want to do something about it! Email me to find out more.

Original post: Caring About Nature is… Depressing.

DECEMBER 8, 2014

Caring About Nature is… Depressing

In reading reviews submitted by students in the Field Ecology course I teach, it is humbling yet somewhat euphoric to discover how much they enjoy the class and their instructor. One remark oft-repeated is how they appreciate my enthusiasm for the material. Motivating students has to be a top priority for any teacher and the best way to do that is to have passion for your work. But some days (even weeks) can be so difficult, at least for me. Perhaps I’ve become too connected to the natural world? Its “pain” becomes my pain.

Oil Sands mining at Ft. McMurray, Alberta (Associated Press)

In isolation, watching only the “wild” beings, there is such wisdom imparted. I hesitate to put the human good/bad spin on Nature, but even in the most “difficult” moments, like predation, enormous sagacity is imparted as we gain understanding of the processes at play. These important perspectives have allowed me to abandon many fears, particularly that of death, because Nature clearly demonstrates all is cyclical – nothing ends, it simply changes form.

However, one of the most significant lessons Nature shares is, for me, the most burdensome to internalize – living in the moment. All the wild creatures have this innate skill. Even the most socialized recognize and experience grief but, at the same time, let go of it enough to continue on. Elephants are an excellent example of this behavior. But the continual exposure to humankind’s assault on Nature and the inevitable helplessness one can experience in combating the onslaught often can be overwhelming. Concern about the future of the planet and all its wild inhabitants is inevitable for those of us who live in close relationship with the natural world.

Consider these headlines from just the past year:

“Snipers” in Britain Target Fox
Most Americans Support Keystone Pipeline
Bill to Force Intelligent Design Instruction
Governor Devotes $2 Million to Kill 500 Wolves
Invertebrate Species Populations Plummet
Wildlife Devastated by Sudanese War

Photo courtesy of Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Ugh… But one must trudge on, particularly with students who look up to you for guidance and knowledge.

So how does one cope with the seemingly endless parade of travesties perpetuated by humans? I’ve no firm answers other than to continue to practice a lifestyle as sustainable as possible (dietary choices are most profound), teach these concepts to all who will heed the message, and spend more time in Nature if for nothing else than its ability to heal. Also, distancing oneself from social media might be helpful, particularly those hot button issues where derogatory commentary from both the pro and con sides can be quite demoralizing.

Please feel free to share your coping mechanisms in the comments below. As the adage says, misery loves company!