(2018.08) Confronting the World’s Greatest Silent Killer: Challenges and Opportunities to Curb Global Pollution

Miguelángel Verde Garrido | 27th August 2018

Global pollution has become one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Polluted air on its own is responsible for as much as 25% of yearly deaths in some countries. Despite the challenges to curb different kinds of pollution, there are also opportunities to effectively do so nowadays. Understanding the global health and environmental implications of air, water, light, and noise pollution as well as those of electronic waste, contributes to clarifying how data collection and public awareness, technological developments, and national and international politics can confront and overcome the world’s greatest silent killer.


(Photo credits: Flickr | CIFOR; and, Flickr | UN Women) 

The world’s greatest silent killer

Global pollution is responsible for many of the health complications that humanity faces nowadays and, even, a worrying amount of global yearly deaths. For some, this fact may seem surprising, but it if is so, the reason is very probably that most of our estimations of threats and risks are informed by our observations. When global pollution is publicly discussed, some kinds of pollution receive much more attention than others. For instance, because the pollution of air and water is more easily observed, their discussion is rather frequent. Other kinds of pollution, more complicated to observe, are seldom discussed: electronic waste or e-waste, light and noise pollution, and space debris orbiting around the planet. Observed or not, ignored or discussed, global pollution in its various different kinds constitutes one of the largest and most silent killers in contemporary society.

It is easier to understand how deadly global pollution is to human beings by comparing it to the deadly threats posed by other animals. Global pollution is not deadly in the way of predators such as sharks and tigers, which can effortlessly hunt and kill a human being. Rather, it is deadly in the way of mosquitoes, which act as vectors for diseases like Zika, yellow fever, malaria, and dengue, among others. (National Geographic, August 2016). Mosquitos incapacitate and kill more people than any other animal every year: the diseases that they spread incapacitate more than 200 million people and kill at least 725 thousand people yearly. (BBC, 15th June 2016). After mosquitos, the second deadliest animals on the planet are human beings: homicides alone were responsible for 437 thousand deaths worldwide in 2012. (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 10th April 2014).

Understanding not only the various kinds of pollution and the challenges these represent, but also the opportunities that exist to curb global pollution, is vital to safeguarding natural and urban environments, and to protecting the health of humanity as well as the rest of the world’s fauna and flora.

Global pollution and its impact

Global pollution is often discussed in relation to climate change, but it is also important to consider it on its own and as representing “the most underrated health problem in the world”. (The Guardian, 20th October 2017). Pollution worldwide “endangers the stability of Earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies”, reads a 2017 report commissioned to The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most respected peer-reviewed medical journals. The report counted with the contributions of more than 40 researchers from governments and universities worldwide, and was funded by the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), and the United States (US).

The report concluded that the combination of air, water, soil, and workplace-related pollution kill an estimated nine million people worldwide each year. In other words, global pollution causes health complications and diseases that lead to the deaths of 1 out of every 6 people. Because the impact of many pollutants is poorly understood, this estimate could be millions of deaths higher. Deaths that result from global pollution are three times as many as those caused by AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis added together. This global loss of human life costs some 4.6 trillion – that is to say, the digits 4 and 6 followed by 11 zeros – US dollars every year in welfare costs, which is roughly equivalent to 6% of gross domestic product (GDP) worldwide.

Most deaths from pollution occur in developing countries. For example, in India, Chad, and Madagascar, pollution kills 1 out of every 4 people. Developed countries also continue to face serious challenges. Countries such as the US and Japan, for example, are in the top 10 for deaths caused by “modern pollution” – that is to say, fossil fuel-related air pollution as well as chemical pollution. The UK, Japan, and Germany are in the top 10 countries for deaths caused by workplace-related pollution.

For these reasons, policies and practices that prevent different kinds of pollution can be highly cost-effective and contribute to vastly reducing these. An important illustration of these is the US Clear Air Act, which was introduced in 1970 and led 6 major pollutants to fall by 70% while increasing the country’s GDP by 250% in the years that followed. Despite the success in economic and health terms of such regulations, the influence of corporate interests have more recently led the US government to deregulate major sources of air pollution. (Vox, 26th January 2018). However, insofar as the different kinds of pollution know no boundaries, even pollution caused in a specific country can become a truly global concern.

Understanding which are the different kinds of pollution is crucial to grasping why global pollution can impact health and the environment at the global level as severely as it does.

The challenges

Wikimedia - Andreas Habich.jpg

(Photo credit: Wikimedia | Andreas Habich)

Air pollution

Air pollution is understood to be the leading environmental cause of human deaths worldwide. In addition and as mentioned above, air pollution and climate change are closely related. Carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, methane, black carbon, ground level ozone, sulfur dioxide in smog (which causes acid rain), and various other chemical pollutants not only impact the way sunlight is reflected or absorbed by the atmosphere, but also lead to cooling and warming the planet. (Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies at Potsdam, 2018).

A 2018 World Health Organization (WHO) study concluded that 9 out of every 10 people in the world breath polluted air. Air pollution causes cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, cancers, strokes, and respiratory infections, among other conditions, which lead to at least 7 million deaths globally each year. 90% of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, but these also continue to occur in the Eastern Mediterranean region, Europe, and the Americas. (WHO, 2nd May 2018). While pursuit of economic growth has led developing countries to fall behind in efforts to clean up their airs (e.g.: more than half of the deaths mentioned above occur in India and China), there are significant changes being implemented in those same countries to reduce the health risks caused by industrial sources of pollution as well as those that result from cooking and heating with fuels such as coal or biomass. (The Guardian, 17th April 2018).

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(Photo credit: Flickr | Stéphane M. Grueso)

Water pollution

Contrary to pollution of rivers and lakes, marine pollution was vastly underestimated in the past, since estimations were that the size of oceans and seas made them entirely resilient to pollutants and garbage. Contaminants in oceans, rivers, seas, and lakes include industrial chemicals, biological waste, pharmaceutical substances ingested by humans, and, increasingly, garbage made with plastics.

The Pacific and Atlantic Oceans already have massive patches of plastic garbage. In the Pacific, one such patch is the size of the US state of Texas, that is to say, the size of France and Switzerland put together. Another Pacific patch is larger than Mexico, in other words, more than six times the size of Germany. (National Geographic, 25th July 2017). The exact size of the Atlantic patch continues to be unknown, but a fact is that it extends some 1770 kilometers from north to south – which is more than the distance that separates London from Moscow. (National Geographic, 2nd March 2010).

It is important to note these patches are not solid masses of plastic garbage: they include everything from plastic bags and straws and bottles to fragments so small as to be considered mere plastic fibers. The health consequences of water polluted with chemicals and pharmaceuticals are known and can be extremely serious. Ongoing medical research related to microplastics suggests that it increases the risk of cancer and causes reproductive problems and liver damage in humans. (Huffington Post, 27th April 2017). Already close to 93% of bottled water, considered safe to drink until recently, is being found to contain microplastics. (State University of New York at Fredonia, 2018). It is noteworthy that 80% of the garbage in oceans comes from sources on land, while it is only the other 20% that which comes from the fishing, shipping, and cruising industries. (Rubicon Global, 9th October 2017). The UK Government Office for Science (2018) recently estimated that the amount of plastic in oceans could already triple by as soon as the year 2025.

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(Photo credit: Wikimedia | Base64 and CarolSpears)

Light and noise pollution

Globally, light pollution is increasing at a rate of 2.2% every year. Most of that growth is coming from developing countries, reliably connected to the growth of GDP, and – quite worryingly – related to the widespread adoption of light-emitting diodes (LED) due to their efficiency. As a result, however, artificially lighted spaces are shifting from yellow to blue hues of light. Consequently, sleep disturbances, which impact cognitive performance and development, are on the rise. (Popular Science, 27th November 2017).

This has led to “one of the most dramatic physical changes human beings have made to our environment”, since only countries such as Yemen and Syria, which are experiencing war, have shown a decrease in light pollution in recent years. (BBC, 22nd November 2017). The impact of light pollution also disturbs the life cycles of insects and, hence, the food chains of local ecosystems, the migration of birds, and even the pollination cycles of plant life, which negatively impacts production levels of food crops and orchards. (Time, 22nd November 2017).

Noise pollution, explains a 2011 WHO report, has “adverse effects on the health of the population” which are only second to those of air pollution. Whereas other forms of pollution are decreasing worldwide, noise pollution is actually increasing. (Australian Academy of Science, 2017). Noise pollution, both workplace-related and otherwise, can cause cardiovascular conditions, psychological and sleep disturbances, impact cognitive development and performance, in addition to several other health complications. As a result, in developed and urbanized countries such as Germany, noise pollution represents the “most heavily underestimated environmental problem” to date. (Der Spiegel, 4th October 2013).

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(Photo credit: Flickr | Fairphone)

Electronic waste

Electronic waste or e-waste is the result of discarding – instead of recycling – electronics such as computers, televisions, and cellphones, besides several others. When electronics are simply discarded, they are usually dismantled, melted or burned, and thrown into landfills that will continue to contain harmful contaminants such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury. In addition, when e-waste is improperly burned or melted, the harmful toxic fumes not only pollute the air, but will also contaminate the soil on which they come to rest. Ongoing medical research suggests these pollutants can lead to inflammation, stress, and even DNA damage in human cells, which can cause cardiovascular diseases and cancer in turn. (Popular Mechanics, 7th June 2011).

Globally, almost 50 million tons of e-waste were expected to be thrown away as garbage in 2017. This represents a 20% increase from merely 2015, when some 41 million tons of e-waste were mostly discarded in developing countries by developed countries and corporations through outsourcing – sometimes illegally – its management rather than doing so within their own borders. Even developed countries such as the US barely managed to recycle 29% of the 206 billion US dollars spent on electronics each year. (The Atlantic, 29th September 2016).

It is important to noted that besides the harmful pollutants contained within e-waste there are also expensive and useful resources that could be recycled. During 2014, for instance, when scarcely 15.5% of e-waste was recycled globally, there was approximately 53 billion US dollars worth of valuable metals and plastics, including 300 tons of gold, within it. Almost 85% of that wealth of resources was simply discarded as garbage. (Der Spiegel, 11th April 2016). Fortunately, two-thirds of countries worldwide have nowadays adopted domestic legislation concerning the efficient management of e-waste. (UN News, 13th December 2017).

The opportunities

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(Photo credit: Flickr |BlackRockSolar)

Data collection and public awareness

Continuously in recent years, new scientific findings have resulted from increased satellite data collection and better monitoring of exposure to global pollution. Similarly, a number of large-scale studies are advancing the understanding of connected health risks. Additionally, news and social media have contributed to creating awareness and broadening discussions throughout the general public on the importance of curbing pollution, and the increasingly efficient ways that exist to do so throughout the globe. (The Guardian, 17th April 2018).

There is no doubt that understanding consumer choices and behaviors, especially in developed countries, can also have a significant impact on curbing global pollution. (Science Alert, 25th February 2016). However, it should not be forgotten that merely 90 state and private corporations were responsible for two-thirds of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions that contributed to climate change and health complications worldwide in 2013. (The Guardian, 20th November 2013).

For this reason, consumer action needs to be accompanied by citizen action. For instance, thousands of ordinary people helped clean up the coastline, rivers, and jungles of Bali from plastic garbage earlier this year, 2018. However, the organizers themselves recognized that cleanups are not a viable solution to plastic pollution, only a way to raise awareness and bring communities together in the search for long-term, viable solutions, which should also included governments and corporations. (The Guardian, 23rd February 2018).

The Ocean Cleanup.jpg

(Photo credit: The Ocean Cleanup)

Technological developments

Global warming could cost the world economy more than 1.95 trillion US dollars every year in lost productivity by 2030. Consequently, not only governments and scientific researchers, but also corporations, are today searching for ways to reduce energy costs and environmental footprints. A strategy to do so is to develop technologies that prioritize these goals. (Forbes, 2nd June 2017).

The Ocean Cleanup project, which was developed by a Dutch teen inventor, launched its first giant floating scoop – almost a kilometer and a half long – in the Pacific Ocean earlier this year, 2018, so as to contribute to reducing the size of the patches in those waters. (The Independent, 22nd April 2018). Recently, global shipping corporations agreed to take action and halve their carbon dioxide emissions through researching and developing technologies that will help them to do so by 2050. (The Guardian, 13th April 2018).

Japanese researchers are studying the production and deployment on an industrial scale of a naturally occurring enzyme, which was found accidentally and could provide a revolutionary mechanism to fully recycle plastic. (BBC, 16th April 2018). Nowadays, even black carbon spewed by the exhaust pipes of machinery that uses fossil fuel (for instance, diesel generators that power buildings) can be recycled and converted into ink and paint for commercial and artistic purposes. (MIT Technology Review, 21st February 2018).

It is important to note that banning traditional, polluting technologies (such as motor vehicles that run on diesel fuel) in order to promote and develop new – as well as traditional – sustainable mobility technologies (such public and private electric transportation and bicycles) is also increasingly being implemented worldwide. (Business Insider, 1st June 2018).

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(Photo credit: China Daily | Xinhua News Agency)

National and international politics

When the general public – inasmuch as citizens and consumers – is informed about the dynamics and consequences of global pollution, and when technical expertise and technological developments are also made available, political and economic incentives can help to ensure that constructive changes in policies, legislation and regulations, and practices happen at local and national levels. However, it is fundamental to take into consideration that global pollution can be transboundary, seriously and negatively impacting global commons such as our planet’s atmosphere, and its oceans and seas, rivers and lakes and aquifers (i.e., natural water wells).

Consequently, the adoption of policies, regulations, and practices cannot stop at the national level. Furthermore, because it is clearer and clearer that global pollution impacts developing countries more harshly than those that are developed, the importance of sharing technical know-how and transferring technology between countries in order to advance global sustainable development goals is also increasingly clearer.

In this sense, the global politics of concerted international efforts such as the United Nations Paris Agreement contribute to providing valuable frameworks, which can address those factors that lead to climate change at the same time as those leading to different kinds of global pollution. Nowadays, in addition to countries, megacities also have an important role to play. There are a number of cities, for example, intent on curbing pollution through the transformations of transportation infrastructure and technologies mentioned earlier. Countries, megacities, and corporations are also critically examining their dependency on disposable plastic, for instance, and are showing their commitment to reducing plastic pollution with immediate bans of single-use plastic items such as bags, straws, and utensils. (UN Environment, 5th June 2018).

The newfound motivation within global politics to curb global pollution is being confirmed by facts such as that the WHO will hold the first ‘Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health’ in October and November 2018, which will be attended by world leaders and will simultaneously address global pollution and climate change. (CBS News, 2nd May 2018).

Now that the world seems to be more open to listening intently, perhaps global pollution will not be able to continue killing as silently as it once did.


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