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Pollution kills 9 million people a year, report says

Dirty air, lead poisoning, and hazardous chemicals are leading causes

by Cheryl Hogue
May 19, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 18


The skyline of Bangkok is blanketed with air pollution.
Credit: Shutterstock
Air pollution, the cause of about 6.7 million premature deaths a year worldwide, blankets Bangkok.

Pollution causes the premature deaths of 9 million people a year worldwide, an international group of researchers says in a report that calls for governments to crack down on contamination (Lancet 2022, DOI: 10.1016/S2542-5196(22)00090-0).

“Urgent attention is needed to control pollution and prevent pollution-related disease, with an emphasis on air pollution and lead poisoning, and a stronger focus on hazardous chemical pollution,” write the authors, who are the Lancet’s Commission on pollution and health says in the paper.

About 90% of the premature deaths linked to pollution occur in low- and middle-income countries, the commission says. This deadly pollution stems from growth in industries and cities, the burning of fossil fuels, and a lack of adequate policies for controlling industrial chemicals, it says. The panel used data from 2019 as the basis of its findings.

Some 6.7 million of the 9 million deaths are caused by air pollution, mainly airborne particulates, the commission finds. Another 1.8 million are due to lead poisoning or exposure to other chemicals. “Given the large number of chemical pollutants and their ubiquity in the modern environment, the disease burden attributable to chemical pollution is likely to be substantially greater than current estimates,” the report states.

Noting that only a small portion of commercial chemicals have been adequately tested for safety, the commission calls three types of health harms from chemicals “particularly worrisome.” One is damage to the nervous system from exposure to commercial substances, including brominated flame retardants, lead, methyl mercury, organic solvents, and organochlorine and organophosphate pesticides. The second comprises adverse effects on fertility and pregnancy, as well as cancer of reproductive systems from molecules such as halogenated flame retardants, plasticizers, pharmaceuticals and their breakdown products, and toxic metals. The third consists of adverse immune system effects, such as reduced antibody responses associated with exposure to perfluoroalkyl acids.

“Pollution has typically been viewed as a local issue,” Rachael Kupka, paper coauthor and executive director of the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, says in a statement. “However, it is clear that pollution is a planetary threat,” and global action is needed to curb pollutants, she says.



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