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Pollution is taking a massive toll on global health, with poor and marginalized populations being hit particularly hard by dangerous contamination.

A new report published in the Lancet finds that diseases driven by pollution — which can range from asthma to cardiovascular disease — were responsible for more than 9 million premature deaths in 2015.


The study looked at air pollution, unsafe water, contaminated soil, and occupational exposure to smoke or harmful gases.

The report comes at a tumultuous time for environmental policy: This month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would roll back clean power regulations put in place under former President Obama. And earlier this year President Trump approved the Keystone XL pipeline, which scientists and environmentalists say brings with it increased likelihood of pollution to communities near Canadian oil sands.

Megan Thielking/STAT Source: Global Burden of Disease study, 2015

Here’s a look at the findings:


  • Diseases driven by pollution accounted for 1 in every 6 deaths in 2015. The bulk of those were noncommunicable diseases such as asthma, cancer, and heart disease.
  • Pollution disproportionately impacts the poor. More than 90 percent of all deaths tied to pollution occur in low-income and middle-income countries. And across all countries, diseases driven by pollution are most prevalent among minority populations.
  • Deaths from some types of pollution have been on the decline. Deaths tied to household air pollution, water pollution, and poor sanitation are declining, in part thanks to vaccines that treat diseases spread through dirty water.
  • Deaths tied to other types of pollution are rising. An estimated 4.2 million deaths in 2015 were attributed to air pollution, a big jump from 3.5 million in 1990.
  • Lead pollution contributed to half a million deaths in 2015. Health problems including high blood pressure, renal failure, and cardiovascular disease are associated with lead exposure in adults.
  • The health impacts of pollution take a financial toll, too. Pollution-related diseases account for up to 7 percent of health spending in developing countries dealing with heavy pollution. In wealthy nations, they account for nearly 2 percent of annual health spending.
  • Addressing pollution seems to save big bucks. The researchers report that every dollar invested in U.S. air pollution control since 1970 — when the Clean Air Act passed — has produced roughly $30 in benefits. Much of that comes from increased productivity from healthier people.