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World Health Day: Pollution endangers both environmental and human health

When Rachel Carson wrote those words in 1962, she may never have guessed that 55 years later pollutants would be one of the world’s major killers.

Air pollution is now the biggest environmental health risk in the world, causing nearly 6.5 million deaths annually, or one in nine premature deaths each year. In terms of global disease burden, air pollution is the cause of over one-third of deaths from stroke, chronic respiratory disease and lung cancer, and one-quarter of deaths from heart attacks.

Polluted water and bad sanitation kill 4,000 children and contribute to 846,000  deaths from diarrhoea each year.

Carson’s landmark book documented the impact of indiscriminate use of the pesticide DDT on human beings and the reproduction cycle of songbirds. Its story remains one of the most beautifully-told examples of the links between pollution and human health.

DDT belongs to a group of chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, which are highly toxic to humans and wildlife. But it’s just one of around 100,000 chemicals currently in use.

In addition, heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium can also become pollutants if not managed correctly, causing acute poisoning, cancers, birth defects, neurological disorders, hormone disruption and more.

Lead poisoning in children costs an estimated $977 billion dollars per year—equivalent to 1.2 per cent of the world’s GDP—by lowering the IQ of children in low to middle income countries ($137 billion in Africa, $142 billion in Latin America and $700 billion in Asia).

Chemical pollutants also have dire environmental impacts, including the nutrient pollution of water bodies (which causes water-based plants to grow prolifically and starve all other life of oxygen) and depletion of ozone in the upper atmosphere.

Then, there is marine litter, much of which is made up of plastic—because plastic takes up to 1,000 years to be fully broken down, during which time it breaks into tinier and tinier pieces. It has already found its way into the human food chain and scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.

We the Peoples— as begins the United Nations Charter— have come a long way in understanding nature and how to minimize the impact of resource production and use—for our own good. All around the world, we have regulations and structures in place to protect both the environment and human beings from pollution, including new forms that didn’t even exist when Carson wrote her book.

UN Environment has spearheaded action on pollution at all levels, from fieldwork and mobilizing communities to advising on national policies and bringing governments, businesses NGOs and individuals together to achieve global targets on pollution.

We have also helped create and advocate for multilateral environmental agreements that include clauses binding us to act before damage is done and take responsibility for the impact of our actions on the environment.

Cutting waste and pollution is also now firmly rooted in the Sustainable Development Goals — a collection of ambitious targets for human development and environmental protection, which every member of the United Nations has committed to reaching by 2030.

An important milestone on the road to 2030 will be the United Nations Environmental Assembly, to be hosted by UN Environment in Nairobi this December. Here, at the world’s “Environmental Parliament”, representatives from all the UN’s member states will come together to examine how we can work towards a pollution free world.

Perhaps Carson’s words will be on their minds at the time:

“Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

Image: Activists gather to demand clean air as Edinburgh Air Pollution Zone to be expanded.


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