Air pollution causes as many as 7 million premature deaths each year: UN report

The number of global deaths resulting from exposure to dangerous levels of PM2.5 - referring to particulate matter fine enough to enter a person's bloodstream through the lungs - rose 11 per cent from 2010 to 2016.
The number of global deaths resulting from exposure to dangerous levels of PM2.5 - referring to particulate matter fine enough to enter a person's bloodstream through the lungs - rose 11 per cent from 2010 to 2016.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Air pollution is the largest environmental health risk, causing between six million and seven million premature deaths and an estimated US$5 trillion (S$6.78 trillion) in welfare losses each year, the United Nations said on Wednesday (March 13) in a landmark 700-page report on the state of the planet.

The sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO) report, compiled by 250 scientists from 70 countries, said a quarter of all disease and early deaths are due to air pollution and other poor environmental conditions which cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

The number of global deaths resulting from exposure to dangerous levels of PM2.5 - referring to particulate matter fine enough to enter a person's bloodstream through the lungs - rose 11 per cent from 2010 to 2016.

Countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa saw sharp increases in such deaths due to rising levels of air pollution even as deaths in Western Europe and North America fell.

Professor Benjamin Horton, who chairs the Asian School of the Environment at the Nanyang Technological University, said: "Despite Singapore's prosperity, it is not isolated from human-induced environmental change occurring elsewhere in South-east Asia. For example, large fires caused by peat burning in Indonesia directly impact air quality and human well-being in Singapore."

Water pollution, which causes 1.4 million preventable deaths annually due to water-borne parasites and pathogens, was also highlighted in the report as a significant threat to human health.

Bacteria resistant to antimicrobial agents can already be found in sources of treated drinking water around the globe due to antibiotics entering the water cycle through agricultural food production, sewage and industrial wastewater.

 
 
 
 

Antimicrobial resistance is set to become a leading cause of early death from infectious diseases worldwide by 2050 if countermeasures are not taken, the report said.

In addition, the use of pesticides and the dumping of industrial chemicals have also introduced pollutants that can disrupt hormonal functions into freshwater systems on all continents. In the long term, this will affect foetal development and fertility over many generations, the report said.

The report also addressed other issues such as global warming and rising sea levels, chemical and plastic pollution in the world's oceans, food wastage, biodiversity loss and the different ways rich and poor nations contribute to and are affected by climate change and pollution.

Echoing the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last year, the GEO report's authors called for urgent and immediate policy action to arrest carbon emissions, pollution and waste production.

They warned that the world is not currently on track to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and 2050, and that delaying action may soon make them impossible to achieve.

Acting executive director of UN Environment Joyce Msuya said in the GEO report that the world has "a small window of opportunity" to turn things around, adding that it is not too late.

"The task may be enormous, but we should also be inspired. Global environmental actions like the Montreal Protocol, our innovative defence against the hole in the Ozone layer, prove that we have the institutions and capacity to come together," she said.

The report was released ahead of the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi being held from Thursday (March 14) to Friday.

Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, is attending the session, where he will deliver Singapore's national statement.