New report from World Health Organization says environment responsible for one-fourth of all deaths

Over 12 million people dead each year due to environmental factors

There’s an old, not very good joke. One fish says to another: “How’s the water?”

The second fish says, “What the hell is water?”

Much in the same way, “the environment” by definition is all around us. But like those talking fish in that terrible joke, we often take it for granted.

From cities like Beijing where athletes are forced to wear oxygen masks to run outdoors due to smog, to places with poisoned water due to chemical plant runoff or fracking, to preventable disease, environmental pressures too often lead to premature death. Especially in a time when we have the knowledge and skills and funding to prevent it, if we only had the will.

Until now, there has been no comprehensive look the specific human toll the environment takes on us.

But now a disturbing report from the World Health Organization points to environmental factors being responsible for fully one-fourth of all deaths in 2012.

That amounts to 12.6 million lives. 12.6 million lives cut short, 12.6 million people who were never given a chance to do everything they could have done, 12.6 million fathers and mothers and daughters and sons taken away prematurely.

The report says that those 12.6 million people died in 2012 due to working or living in an environment that was unhealthy. Nearly a quarter of all deaths across the globe, in other words, are due to disease, water and air pollution, and exposure to chemicals and radiation, which contribute to more than 100 life-threatening diseases and injuries.

And while the overall number of deaths has not increased since WHO’s last report, which was released in 2002, that’s largely due to better access to clean water, mosquito nets, and immunization. On the other hand, deaths caused by conditions that are exacerbated by air pollution–including heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic respiratory disease–have increased. Those factors accounted for more than 8 million deaths in 2012 alone.

And sadly, deaths and illnesses from environmental factors disproportionately affect the very young and the very old. Children under five and adults between the ages of 50 and 75 made up fully half of all deaths in 2012.

However WHO officials point to ways we can combat some of these environmental factors. For one, instead of reacting to crises, policymakers could focus on preventative measures like increasing access to clean water and implementing clean-energy initiatives.

“There’s an urgent need for investment in strategies to reduce environmental risks in our cities, homes, and workplaces,” said Maria Neira, director of WHO’s 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 health care costs.”

No word yet on how the WHO intends to convince lawmakers to make such investments in an age of austerity fetishism.

Still, to have concrete figures to point to does give us roadmap forward. We can make these changes even if the politicians don’t want them.

Polluted Environment is Responsible for One-Quarter of Global Deaths

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