Science & Technology

Project pollution: McGill professor highlights the risk

On Oct. 19, the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health released a report identifying pollution as the cause of nine million deaths across the world in 2015. The report addressed the costs of water, soil, and air pollution to the global economy and public health, stressing pollution as an underreported and terribly severe contributor to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD).

The GBD is an epidemiological study of global health trends since 1990. It aims to understand global health by examining measures like mortality and life expectancy to see how external factors contribute to declines in the overall health of a population.

The staggering figures produced by the GBD’s rigorous research deem pollution a significant health risk. The commission states that 92 per cent of all pollution-related mortality occurs in low-income and middle-income countries—and particularly those experiencing rapid industrialization. Air pollution accounted for 6.5 million deaths in 2015, followed by deaths caused by water pollution, which came in at 1.8 million.

According to the commission, the impacts of pollution on health are unevenly distributed, with pollution disproportionately affecting the marginalized and the vulnerable.

Niladri Basu, an associate professor in the faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Health Sciences, calls this an unacceptable truth and an issue of human rights.

“We all have a right to a safe workplace,” Basu wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “We take this for granted in Canada but millions around the world can not say the same.”

Basu contributed to the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health’s report, and said that the report will raise awareness about the link between pollution and health. He further commented on how pollution’s severity is underrepresented in the media.

“Many of our donor agencies and foundations are rightfully committed to global health, though few of them have realized the immense burden that pollution plays,” Basu wrote. “Our report shows that pollution causes three times more premature deaths than AIDS, TB, and malaria combined.”

Pollution harms health, but it’s also harmful to economies. Welfare losses due to pollution are estimated to cost more than US $4.6 trillion each year, about 6.2 per cent of global economic output. In middle-income countries that are heavily polluted and rapidly developing, up to seven per cent of annual health spending is allocated to cover the costs of pollution-related disease.

However, it’s not all bad news. The mission of the Lancet Commission is to inform economic and health policy makers worldwide about the burdens of pollution and to suggest affordable control solutions that focus on pollution prevention.

Pollution can be eliminated and the measures taken to do so can be cost-effective. In the past, high-income countries have been largely successful in managing pollution, and in the last 50 years air quality in Canada and the United States has improved immensely. Similar strategies at the level of policy can be applied to countries of all levels of income.

The report outlines six recommendations based on its findings, such as making pollution a high international priority and increasing the funding and technical support of pollution control.

As a professor, Basu is certain that education, empowerment, and the communication of scientific knowledge are long-term solutions to the pollution problem.

The solution to pollution resides in transdisciplinary sciences,” Basu said.  “We need social scientists to link with natural scientists to link with engineers, public health officials, regulators, and so on. Multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary partnerships are the only way forward [….] Pollution is preventable, and it can be done in a cost-effective and win-win manner.”

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