Rich countries solved this problem decades ago, but now millions of poor people are dying from it

This year, industrialized countries will spend $10.4 billion helping poor countries cut carbon emissions and brace for the impact of climate change. Meanwhile, the world shells out tens of billions a year combating infectious diseases like HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis, spending which continues to rise.

What hardly anyone’s spending on is pollution—even though it’s the most lethal force on the planet, killing nearly 8.9 million people in 2012, the last year for which there was data. Here’s how unnatural causes of death stack up globally:


To be more precise, rich countries do spend on cleaning up the environment—mainly just their own, though. Yet poor countries suffer the majority of pollution’s lethal impact: 94% of the people that are sickened by toxic air, soil, and water each year live in the developing world, according to a report just published (pdf) by the Blacksmith Institute, Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP), and Green Cross Switzerland, three non-government organizations.


Part of the problem is that the nations with egregious pollution woes tend also to be the poorest. Most can only allot no more than 1-2% of their national annual budget to dealing with it—often equal to a few hundred thousand dollars—says David Hanrahan, advisor to GAHP.

Another is that, unlike specific infectious diseases, pollution causes a broad range of symptoms, says Green Cross Switzerland’s Nathalie Gysy. “Pollution is not a priority concern in poorer countries in part because it’s often invisible to the eye and doesn’t leave a clear fingerprint on its victims,” she says.

And since rich countries have long since forgotten their own struggles with crippling levels of pollution in the 1950s and ’60s, they tend to neglect it in their foreign aid, adds Gysy.

That doesn’t mean rich countries are necessarily insulated from the pollutants sickening their poorer neighbors. China’s airpocalypse is now turning up in Los Angeles, as well as in Korea and Japan. Meanwhile, mercury runoff from small-time gold mines and coal plants in Asia and Latin America shows up in the wealthy world’s tuna rolls, just as arsenic sometimes taints its rice.

Then there’s the impact to global GDP. Today’s report estimates that the health consequences of air pollution alone costs low- and middle-income countries 6-12% of their GDP a year. Foul air and water are clearly not boosting long-term productivity, either. A growing body of evidence suggests that pollution reduces IQ, including a 2013 study that estimated nearly 200,000 children in seven Asian countries suffered a reduction of between five and 15 IQ points (pdf) as a result of lead poisoning.

By comparing the destructive effects of pollution to those borne by climate change and infectious disease, the groups hope to attract the attention and funding of wealthier countries and organizations. These pollution problems can be relatively inexpensive to combat, say the three groups. For instance, cleaning up a village’s hazardous waste and educating villagers can cost as little as $20 per person.

But poor countries also have a ways to go in recognizing pollution’s toll. The 17 “sustainable development goals“—economic development priorities many such countries helped set, and which the UN will likely soon adopt as its own agenda—include combating climate change and using natural resources sustainably; pollution barely gets a mention.

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