According to a comprehensive, two-year look at the effect of pollution on global health, it is responsible for about 9 million deaths annually. At 16% of deaths, that means it ranks much higher than the things we tend to fear more, like war or communicable diseases. Sadder still, it's the most vulnerable populations — the poor, the very young, and the very old — who are at highest risk of death caused by polluted air or water.
The report, issued by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, uses numbers from the Global Burden of Disease study in 2015. It found that 4.2 million people died from a type of air pollution called particulate matter (microscopic particles) in the ambient air, while 2.9 million died from indoor air pollution (from chemicals and burning cooking fuel and wood). Outdoor particulate matter and ground-level ozone come mostly from burning fossil fuels in power plants and vehicles. Unsafe water accounted for 1.8 million deaths, and occupational exposure carcinogens or particulates caused 800,000 deaths.
These harmful materials don't simply strike people dead on the spot; they harm them by causing heart and lung diseases (and by exacerbating conditions such as asthma), chronic intestinal diseases. And, according to many studies, pollutants affect the brain, too. Death isn't the only negative outcome of exposure to pollution. Children exposed to pollution in utero have a chance of developing a lower I.Q., obesity, and disorders such as ADHD.
Despite decades of regulations such as the United States Clean Air Act of 1970, industrial progress has made pollution progressively worse, particularly in developing countries. The commission said that the highest number of pollution-related deaths in 2015 occurred in Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, and 92 percent of deaths were in low and middle-income countries.
"Solutions exist," Richard Fuller, a co-chair of the commission and president of the nonprofit Pure Earth, told CBS News. "There are well-tested, low-cost strategies that work to keep pollution in control."
The report is a "show of force" Fuller said, to show leaders how dire the situation is and thus encourage them to prioritize measures to control it. Much the same way the Paris Climate Agreement set goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the commission recommends setting targets and deadlines for pollution control. One basic solution is the same as for curbing climate change: to turn to more renewable energy sources for our power plants and transportation instead of burning fossil fuel.
"We are united in our agreement that pollution is a global crisis and that we can solve it," Fuller told CBS. "The world has to listen."