“A healthy environment underpins a healthy population,” says Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), also noting that governments need to take strong action to improve environments in order to save lives. 

On March 15, WHO released the second edition of a report on the health challenges that stem from living and working in unhealthy environments. The report, “Preventing Disease through Healthy Environments: A Global Assessment of the Burden of Disease from Environmental Risks,” found that environmental risk factors such as pollution, chemical exposure, ultraviolet radiation, and climate change, contribute to more than 100 types of diseases and injuries. However, creating and sustaining healthier environments can significantly decrease environment-related injury, death, and disease. 

Here are five key takeaways from the report.

Nearly 1 in 4 deaths in 2012 resulted from unhealthy environments.

In 2012, an estimated 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in unhealthy environments – that’s nearly 1 in 4 global deaths. 

Air pollution is increasing the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, such as stroke, heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease. Non-communicable diseases accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 12.6 million deaths reported in 2012, and more than 1 in 3 of those were attributable to household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.

Children and elderly are the most at risk populations.  

According to the report, environmental risks disproportionately affect children and the elderly. Each year, unhealthy environments contribute to 1.7 million deaths in children under 5 and 4.9 million deaths in adults aged 50 to 75. 

Low- and middle-income countries bear the greatest disease burden. 

The report found that low- and middle-income countries in the WHO South-East Asian and Western Pacific Regions displayed the largest environmental disease rate in 2012 with a total of 7.3 million deaths. Overall, low and middle income countries report the highest rates of environment-related disease, however high-income countries also report relatively high occurrences of environment-related non-communicable diseases. 

Climate change is a health issue.  

In the coming decades, climate change is set to become one of the most challenging environmental risks faced by populations around the world. Abnormal fluctuations in weather patterns, food shortages, and over-crowding due to population displacement caused by climate change will create health crises.

Reversing environment-related death and disease is possible and cost effective. 

According to WHO, countries can take cost-effective measures to prevent environment-related disease and death. Reducing the use of solid fuels for cooking, increasing access to low-carbon technologies, and increasing access to safe drinking water are all steps countries can take to prevent deaths.

The Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by world leaders in 2015, provide a global to-do list to address social, economic, and environmental development needs. As part of this agenda, we need to focus on creating healthier environments, which will improve global health. 

TAKE ACTION: The United Nations Foundation works on a number of initiatives to strengthen global health and the environment. To learn more, visit the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which works to create a thriving market for clean cookstoves and the Sustainable Energy for All “Energy and Women’s Health” initiative.

Photo credit: WHO/PAHO/H. Ruiz