In alarming recent reports, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) points out that chemicals, micro plastics, air pollution and other environmental threats are responsible for almost one quarter of all deaths.
The revelations were highlighted in a series of reports released at the second United Nations Environment Assembly.
A press release summarising the reports, issued 23 May, says that environmental degradation and pollution is estimated to cause up to 234 times as many premature deaths compared to deaths inflicted by conflicts annually.
A special emphasis was paid to the importance of a healthy environment to achieving the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
In a stark statistic, the report stated that environmental factors stand behind the deaths of more than one quarter of children under the age of five.
“By depleting the ecological infrastructure of our planet and increasing our pollution footprint, we incur an ever-growing cost in terms of human health and well-being. From air pollution and chemical exposure to the mining of our natural resource base, we have compromised our life support systems," said Achim Steiner, UNEP executive director.
According to the reports, an estimated 12.6 million deaths could be attributed to deteriorating environmental conditions in 2012.
The region with the highest share of deaths was Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific (28 percent and 27 percent respectively).
The reports also highlight estimates from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicating that between the years 2030 and 2050, more than 250,000 additional deaths could occur each year due to malnutrition, diarrhea, malaria and heat stress as a result of climate change.
In the summary report, the key environmental factors were stated as follows:
1. Air pollution: responsible for the deaths of seven million each year.
2. Lack of access to clear water and sanitation: responsible for the deaths of 842,000 each year due to diarrhea, mainly in developing countries.
Diarrhea is the third leading cause of death in children under five years old worldwide.
3. Exposure to chemicals: 107,000 people die annually from exposure to asbestos, while 654,000 die from exposure to lead, according to a 2010 statistic.
4. Natural disasters: since 1995, 606,000 have died due to weather-related disasters.
Included in the report were estimates of how investment in a healthy environment can bring many tangible benefits, including:
1. By 2030, the successful elimination of 100 ozone depleting substances can help evade two million cases of skin cancer and millions of eye cataract cases each year.
2. The elimination of lead in gasoline is estimated to be saving one million premature deaths per year.
3. Reducing the emission of pollutants like black carbon and methane can save 2.4 million lives a year.
4. Investing in workplace health programmes can reduce sick leave absence by 27 percent.
The report puts four recommendations to the fore in order to achieve these benefits:
1. Detoxification: removal of harmful substances and reducing their impact on the environment.
2, Decarbonisation: reduction of using carbon fuels through renewable energy technology.
3. Changing lifestyles: generating necessary economic activity to sustain the world's population with lower resource use, less pollution, less waste and less environmental destruction.
4. Protecting the planet's natural systems: build the capacity of societies and the environment to protect biodiversity, strengthen ecosystem restoration and reduce pressure from livestock protection on natural ecosystems.
The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is the world’s most powerful decision-making body on the environment, and is responsible for tackling some of the most critical challenges of our time related to ecology and environment.