Toxic: Smoke billows from a steel plant in Inner Mongolia, China. People worldwide die as a result of pollution in the air, ground and water. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
A staggering nine million people are killed a year by pollution, making it the single biggest killer in the world, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme. That’s a quarter of all premature deaths and can be put down to a toxic mix of polluted air, land and water.
Released in Nairobi on Wednesday, the sixth Global Environment Outlook is the most comprehensive report ever published on the state of the natural world. It looks at the state of things such as oceans, forests and biodiversity.
The biggest killer is air pollution, which kills seven million people a year. Another 1.4-million people die from diarrhoea and other preventable diseases caused by polluted water.
There are also warnings about pollution that even the UN isn’t sure about. Regarding chemical pollution, for example, it says: “Modern society is living in the most chemical-intensive era in human history; the pace of production of new chemicals largely surpasses the capacity to fully assess their potential adverse impacts on human health and ecosystems.”
And there are future warnings. The rapid growth of antibiotic use in food production will result in drug-resistant superbugs becoming the biggest killer of people by 2050.
In South Africa, the World Health Organisation estimates that air pollution kills at least 20 000 people a year. More than half of these deaths are caused by people burning wood and coal in their homes for cooking and heating. The rest are killed by everything from polluted air from heavy industry and vehicle exhaust fumes to the dust whipped up by strong winds on the highveld.
Inequality and overconsumption are blamed for the current state of the world. People use 90-billion tonnes of natural resources each year, but those in high-income countries use 10 times more resources than people in low-income countries. People in poor countries are also stuck with the toxic waste dumped there and the health costs of producing goods for the rich.
This situation is replicated in microcosm throughout South Africa. In Durban South, poorer children who live and go to schools near the city’s refineries have the world’s highest rates of asthma. In Johannesburg, Soweto was built near the city’s mine dumps and its residents breathe in the toxic dust.
In other countries, this kind of pollution is causing political unrest and is pushing governments to act. In Beijing, polluting factories have been forced to move away from populated areas. In Paris, a lottery determines which cars will be allowed to drive in the city. This week, South Korea’s government tackled its “social disaster” by passing Bills that will make about R40-billion available to take measures aimed at reducing air pollution, such as installing air purifiers in classrooms.
South Africa has declared several priority areas where air pollution is particularly severe. These are around Eskom’s coal-fired power plants in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, and the industrial facilities run by Sasol and ArcelorMittal in southern Gauteng and Mpumalanga. But these companies have also been given exemptions to circumvent the law requiring measures to reduce air pollution.
Eskom has argued that it is too expensive for it to lower air pollution, saying: “Eskom considers that it is not practically feasible or beneficial for South Africa to comply fully [with the new air quality laws].”
But the UN report argues that dealing with climate change and air pollution — inexorably linked because many of the pollutants that warm the planet also make people sick — would save the world a lot of money. If every country worked to keep global warming below 2°C, the cost would be R315-trillion. Reducing carbon emissions, which would also reduce air pollution, would save R774-trillion in costs linked to climate change and health problems.
The report warns that action must be taken now: “Urgent action at an unprecedented scale is necessary to arrest and reverse this situation.”