“Environmental pollution, it’s not my problem.” Is this something you’ve heard? Is this something you’ve said? Is this something you believe?
If it is, consider opening your eyes and ears, because evidence from the World Health Organization and the World Bank strongly indicates that environmental pollution is everybody’s problem. According to these organizations’ estimates, some 20% of premature death worldwide can be related to environmental factors.
Imagine five people you know, and then imagine one of them dead due to environmental pollution. That’s not an abstract fear: that’s everybody’s problem. Granted, the majority of the “death statistics” are gathered in extremely poor parts of the world, most prominently sub-Saharan Africa (where these one in five deaths are almost always children under the age of six.)
“But environmental factors, that could mean anything,” you may think. The WHO/World Bank evidence cites specific pollution issues that are linked to premature death. The biggest offenders are water and air pollution, unclean drinking water and unsafe clouds of toxic smoke wafting over communities, with lead-based contamination coming in a grimly close third.
The biggest offender when it comes to deaths caused by environmental pollution is respiratory infections, which cause some 4 million child deaths per year. The usual cause of these infections is indoor airborne pollution. Cook fires fill the air of a house with grease, smoke, and other irritants, which quickly sap infant health. Outdoor cook fires are no better and simply spread the problem around, compounding it with existing chemical fires from burning plastic and poisoned animals. A close second infection caused by the application of pesticides, which kills another 3.5 million adults. Malaria and poisoned drinking water round out the picture.
This isn’t what we tend to think of when we think of environmental pollution, the classic image is a smokestack belching green clouds, or glowing drums of nuclear waste floating in a lagoon. What the World Bank/WHO report talks about, however, isn’t about classic images: it’s about the reality of life for one of the most populous continents in the world. In a thousand small ways, environmental pollution poisons the air and the water and makes life on earth impossible.
Most of us don’t live in sub-Saharan Africa and many of us treat these pollution-related deaths as something abstract, distant from our own experience. Aristotle famously said that action at a distance is impossible; empathy at a distance may be equally so. But in the modern world, we’re not as distant from the world of extreme poverty as we think. Unfortunately, it seems, based on statistics like this, that the only distance that matters may be the gap between wealth and poverty, the gap between water that kills us and water that keeps us alive.