Here’s the down & dirty on pollution. It is one of the leading causes of death globally, with 92% of deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries. People in the poorest, most marginalized communities often bear the constant toxic assault of polluted air, soil, and water. Due to the myriad number of ways pollution affects the health and livelihoods of people around the world, coordinated efforts to fight pollution are key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals.
Latest estimates by the Institute for Health Metrics Evaluation put pollution-related deaths at 9 million every year. That’s like all in the people in Manhattan or Bangkok or Bogota dying every year, year after year. Millions more, especially children, experience illness or disability from exposure to toxic pollution.
This has clear implications for achieving SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being. Moreover, these health impacts have huge consequences for lost work hours, lower wages, and the ability to achieve SDG 1: No Poverty and SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. A recent Pulitzer Center series on delves into this link between toxic work environments, livelihoods, and health.
A March 2017 WHO report reveals that children comprise 1.7 million of all pollution-related deaths. Children born with birth defects from exposure to pollution or who develop disabilities also face challenges in attending school. Efforts to achieve SDG 4: Quality Education must be responsive to the needs of these children and supportive of efforts to fight pollution. Women are also particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of toxic chemicals on their reproductive health and the increased risk of exposure to toxic environments. For these reasons, addressing pollution is integral to achieving SDG 5: Gender Equality.
Though much is known about health burdens of pollution, pollution-related mortality estimates don’t even include places where soil is contaminated by toxic chemicals like mercury from gold mining, lead smelting, mining wastes, e-waste burning, pesticide dumping, and massive garbage dumps that sicken waste pickers, emit methane, and add to global warming. If people’s food supplies are threatened by contaminated soil, it will be very difficult to achieve SDG 2: Zero Hunger or SDG 15: Life on Land.
Wells and other community water sources are also threatened by pollution. Countries won’t be able to achieve SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation or SDG 14: Life Below Water without regulating and protecting these life-sustaining resources. And yet, regulation is only one part of the equation to fight pollution. Innovation and investments in sustainability are also key to making progress towards SDG 7: Affordable and Clean Energy. Good jobs resulting from investment in infrastructure for solid waste management, sanitation, and water treatment are just one of the many benefits to fighting pollution and are directly related to SDG 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure.
The positive impacts of increased access to safe food and water, as well as increased incomes, can all help to break cycles of poverty and achieve SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities and SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.
Yet the responsibility for fighting pollution does not fall on LMICs alone. Demand for cheap goods and lack of support for responsibly produced products in developed countries drives many of the toxic practices in developing countries. Attention to the drivers of pollution is a must to reach SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production.
Furthermore, we cannot ignore that pollution is a leading cause of global warming and developed countries bear much of the responsibility for climate change due to industry – either directly or through the export of our polluting industries to countries with weak regulation and little enforcement capability. Coordinated, inclusive, and just responses to pollution will therefore also be necessary to achieve SDG 13: Climate Action and SDG 17: Partnerships for the Goals.
Conversely, trends towards increased citizen unrest due to the negative effects of pollution will continue without these partnerships and investments to fight pollution. If we continue to stress our resources and pollute our environments, it will be very difficult to achieve SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions.
The good news is lifesaving, affordable solutions exist! The Global Commission on Pollution and Health, convened by The Lancet, Mt. Sinai and the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), is releasing a landmark report on pollution in The Lancet in the summer of 2017. The report, authored by more than 50 experts, lays out the health and economic impact of all forms of pollution, air, water, soil and chemical wastes and provides a set of solutions for nations to create a roadmap for cleaning up.