WHO urges investment to curb environment-related deaths

15 Mar 16

Investments to reduce environmental risks in homes and workplaces are urgently needed to reduce the 12.6 million deaths attributable to unhealthy environments each year, the World Health Organisation has warned.


Traffic jam in Bangkok, Thailand

Traffic jam in Bangkok, Thailand


The WHO estimates that nearly one fourth of total global deaths in 2012 were due to environment-related factors and could be prevented, with young children and older people the worst affected.

Margaret Chan, WHO director general, said if countries do not take action millions will continue to become ill and die too young.

A report published today by the WHO found that over the last decade, deaths due to non-communicable diseases such as stroke, heart disease and cancers attributable to air pollution, including second-hand tobacco smoke, have risen significantly.

They now amount to 8.2 million, or nearly two-thirds, of the total deaths caused by unhealthy environments every year.

Other environmental risk factors such as water and soil pollution, chemical exposure, climate change and ultraviolet radiation also contribute to more than 100 diseases and injuries.

While deaths from infectious diseases such as diarrhoea and malaria have fallen since 2006, deaths from these other factors have increased. The report links many of these to poverty and rapid urbanisation, with outdoor air pollution an increasing risk to people’s health.

Rapid industrialisation in China, India and elsewhere in southeast Asia and the Pacific is a major cause of death and illness and made these regions among the most unhealthy places to live in the world.

However, high-income countries also hold a relatively high burden for some diseases, such as heart diseases and cancers.

Children under five and adults aged 50-75 are the worst affected. The report found that every year 1.7 million deaths in children aged 0-5 and in 4.9 million deaths in adults aged 50 to 75 could be prevented through better environmental management.

While respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases mostly impact young children, older adults are most impacted by strokes, heart disease, cancers and chronic respiratory disease.

The report outlines cost-effective measures that countries can take to reverse the upward trend of environment-related disease and death.

These include the use of clean technologies for cooking, heating and lighting, tobacco smoke-free legislation, improvements to urban transit and planning and the construction of energy-efficient housing.

Dr Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said such strategies are urgently needed.

They can significantly reduce the worldwide burden of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, injuries and cancers, leading to immediate savings in healthcare costs, she added. 

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