One in four deaths due to environment - study


A new study shows environmental factors are responsible for one in four global deaths.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says living and working in an unhealthy environment causes around 13 million deaths each year.

That includes air and water pollution, as well as climate change, roads and housing.

"A healthy environment underpins a healthy population," says WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan.

"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."

Study contributor Professor Alistair Woodward from the University of Auckland says that while the bulk of the problem lies in China and India, New Zealand isn't immune.

"Three-hundred a year dies on the roads, 90 people drown, 1100 a year die as a result of air pollution. Those are all things that we could fix if we were able to change the environment to make it healthier."

Deaths from infectious diseases related to poor water, sanitation and waste management, have declined in the past 10 years, but deaths due to non-communicable diseases, attributable to air pollution, have increased.

Stroke, heart disease, cancers and chronic respiratory disease now amount to nearly two-thirds of the total deaths caused by unhealthy environments.

"Air quality is the big, big issue, over seven million deaths a year worldwide as a result of poor air quality," says Professor Woodward.

"There are some emerging issues. Climate change is knocking on the door."

He says dealing with pollution is the most pressing challenge, which for New Zealanders means switching from cars and woodfires to cleaner alternatives.

"There's an urgent need for investment in strategies to reduce environmental risks in our cities, homes and workplaces," says Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director, Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

"Such investments can significantly reduce the rising worldwide burden of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, injuries and cancers, and lead to immediate savings in healthcare costs."

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, most attributable to indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Top causes of environment-related deaths

1. Stroke (2.5 million deaths annually) 2. Ischaemic heart disease (2.3 million deaths annually) 3. Unintentional Injuries (e.g. road traffic deaths) (1.7 million deaths annually) 4. Cancers (1.7 million deaths annually) 5. Chronic Respiratory Diseases (1.4 million deaths annually) 6. Diarrhoeal Diseases (846,000 deaths annually) 7. Respiratory Infections (567,000 deaths annually) 8. Neonatal Conditions (270,000 deaths annually) 9. Malaria (259,000 deaths annually) 10. Intentional injuries (e.g. suicides) (246,000 deaths annually)