Pollution-related deaths: India among the top ten because of industrial, urban growth, poor sanitation


Excerpts from the report “Pollution and Health Metrics: Global, Regional, and Country Analysis December 2019”, prepared by Global Alliance for Health and Pollution:

Pollution is an enormous and poorly addressed health problem. In October 2017, The Lancet Commission on pollution and health quantified the human toll of worldwide pollution—9 million premature deaths a year. The data for that analysis was from 2015. Updates with the most recent dataset—2017—and also break-down the results by country, enabling to rank the best and worst performers in each region, shows pollution still to be the largest environmental cause of premature death on the planet, killing 8.3 million people in 2017, or nearly one death in seven.

These deaths are caused by exposure to toxic air, water, soil, and chemical pollution globally. The results are still conservative, as many known toxins are not included in the analysis. Data from the Institute for Health Metric’s (IHME’s) 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study show reductions in death from 2015 to 2017 mostly reflect changes in calculations of methodology related to air pollution.

New analyses, conducted by IHME’s air pollution experts, Health Effects Institute, reviewed the overlap between indoor air and outdoor air with new data and methodologies. Changes were also made in methodologies for various occupational pollutants and for lead. Each of these updated the IHME calculations. Overall, the results show an improvement in the number of premature deaths from traditional types of pollution— sanitation and household air contaminated by smoke from cook stoves—from 2015 to 2017.

But premature deaths from modern pollution, those types of pollution caused by industrialization and urbanization, are on the rise. Modern pollution, now responsible for 5.3 million deaths a year, is poorly addressed in development agendas and still lacks substantive focus within international agencies, though attention to the problem is growing.

The Lancet Commission Report was principally organized around global-level data; national level results were not published. In order to respond to the interest of national governments, local researchers, and the broad public, this report presents a deeper analysis of the data available to the Commission and sets out regional and country-level overviews of pollution’s heavy toll on health. The analysis finds that those 8.3 million premature deaths are spread unevenly amongst the countries of the world.

In fact, the top 10 countries most affected are responsible for two thirds of those deaths. It should be noted that these numbers are rough estimates, with a large degree of uncertainty. The IHME data provides a range from 7 million to 10 million total premature deaths, attributing 5 million of those to air pollution.

Other analyses attribute more deaths to air pollution alone—7 million according to WHO and 9 million deaths according to a recent European study. IHME data gives a stable basis for country comparisons and changes over time. We have not taken into account overlaps in pollution risk factors in this analysis.

Tragic as it is, it is not surprising to see India and China at the top of this list. They both have billion-plus populations and are industrializing rapidly. Other heavily populated countries—such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia— are also badly affected. The United States, the world’s third most populous country with 325 million people, makes the top 10 list by virtue of its size, while ranking 132nd in the number of deaths per 100,000 people. In the U.S., air pollution is responsible for more than half of the pollution related premature deaths.


Pollution is a leading cause of premature death in many smaller low and middle-income countries where the death rates per 100,000 people are much higher than those in more populous, high income nations. Poor water sanitation and contaminated indoor air are major killers in the world’s poorest nations.

India, the second most populous nation, appears on both Top Ten lists with not only the highest number of deaths but also the 10th highest death rate. India has seen increasing industrial and vehicular pollution from urban growth while poor sanitation and contaminated indoor air persist in low-income communities.

Five nations on the Arabian Peninsula rank among the 10 countries in the world with the lowest death rates from pollution, with Qatar reporting the lowest death rate among the countries surveyed. Wealthier nations, by and large, have lower death rates from pollution, though pollution death rates in India and China far exceed those of other high GDP nations. Among the ten nations with the highest GDP, Canada has the lowest death rate from pollution, followed by Brazil.

Much of the world’s attention is focused on ambient air pollution, especially the smog that often envelops Beijing and Delhi. There is a reason for this: Ambient air pollution and ozone are responsible for 40 percent of all pollution elated deaths or an estimated 3.4 million deaths a year. Add in the tally from indoor air pollution and the count grows to almost 5 million premature deaths caused by breathing bad air. Half of all air pollution-related deaths occur in Chinese and Indian cities.

Click HERE to download full report

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