Air pollution kills up to 7 million prematurely yearly: UN report

Air pollution is the largest environmental health risk, causing between six million and seven million premature deaths and an estimated US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) in welfare losses each year, the United Nations said 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 on Wednesday that a quarter of all disease and early deaths are due to air pollution and other poor environmental conditions that cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

The number of global deaths resulting from exposure to dangerous levels of PM2.5 - particulates 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.

Other issues addressed in the report are global warming and rising sea levels, chemical and plastic pollution in the world's oceans, and food wastage.

The GEO report was released ahead of the two-day session of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi that ends today.

Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, attended the session, where he delivered Singapore's national statement.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2019, with the headline 'Air pollution kills up to 7 million prematurely yearly: UN report'. Print Edition | Subscribe