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Pollution causes 16% of deaths worldwide: Lancet study

Vancouver researcher says the deaths are entirely preventable.

The North Shore mountains and Ironworkers Memorial Bridge are barely visible through smoky air on Aug. 8, 2017 during B.C.'s worst wildfire season on record.

Jen St. Denis / Metro Web Upload

The North Shore mountains and Ironworkers Memorial Bridge are barely visible through smoky air on Aug. 8, 2017 during B.C.'s worst wildfire season on record.

Pollution causes 16 per cent of all deaths around the globe, according to a Lancet-commissioned study that is the first to analyze together the impact of air, water and soil pollution.
 
The purpose of the research was to “come up with an estimate of the global burden of disease from pollution,” said Bruce Lanphear, a health sciences professor with Simon Fraser University who is an author of the study.
 
“By better quantifying it, we might galvanize people to act.”
 
Examples of pollution include air pollution from vehicle exhaust and exposure to solvents, pesticides and lead. The social costs include the long-term effects of exposure, such as the long-term cognitive problems associated with lead poisoning.
 
Despite the grim statistic, Lamphear believes it’s a hopeful study.
 
“What’s so exciting about studying things like pollution is that it’s entirely preventable,” he said. “Pollution is man-made, we know how to control it. That contrasts with other potential causes that haven’t been fully fleshed out.”
 
For instance, scientists know that around one in four cases of childhood leukemia is caused by exposure to toxic chemicals or pollutants, yet only one per cent of all research funding for childhood cancer goes towards prevention, Lanphear said.
 
The statistics are grimmest for people in lower- and middle-income countries, where 92 per cent of all pollution-related deaths occur.
 
Lanphear believes Canada has a role to play in controlling pollution in our own country, and taking steps to ensure Canadian corporations are not exporting toxic substances, such as asbestos or lead-based paint, to developing countries. Canada no longer mines or exports asbestos — a ban that wasn’t put in place until 2012.
 
The Canadian government recently committed to review the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The legislation hasn’t been updated in 20 years.
 
Because exposure to pollution is such a serious health risk, it’s important that all levels of government adopt policies to reduce pollution. Lanphear pointed to Vancouer’s commitment to have 75 per cent of city trips completed by biking, walking or public transit by 2040 as an important goal.

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