Study: Pollution Kills More People Than War, Smoking, Hunger, and Other Causes of Death

220px-AlfedPalmersmokestacksWe have previously discussed how environmental dangers remain something of an abstraction for most people who fail to recognize that changes in air or water pollution standards results in high and quantifiable rises in death rates.  Even changes in areas like shipping fuels can translate to thousands of deaths.  However, since these deaths are not immediate and borne privately, the true costs of pollution are often dismissed.  I have been highly critical of the environmental record of the Trump Administration for this reason in rolling back on protections in a variety of areas as well as appointing regulators with anti-environmental records.  Now a new major study has found that environmental pollution kills more people every year that all of the wars.  It exceeds the death tolls for smoking, hunger or natural disasters combined. It kills more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Yet, unlike these causes of death, pollution remains a policy concern that is often pushed to the side for more immediate goals like job creation.  This is not to say that environmental protection would trump all other concerns but rather the real costs of such pollution are rarely discussed in real terms of premature deaths by politicians.

The study in the respected Lancet medical journal found that one out of every six premature deaths in the world in 2015 was caused by toxic exposure.  That amounts to 9 million people who died prematurely due to pollution.  The study also found that the cost of the resulting illnesses and deaths amounted to some $4.6 trillion in annual losses.

Worse yet, the 9 million deaths from pollution appears a highly conservative estimate since it relied on only limited data on specific measurable cases of deaths and illnesses. The actual number is likely much higher. Moreover, only half of the 5000 news chemicals introduced since 1950 have actually been fully tested for their toxicity.

Obviously, the rate of death is higher in developing countries, though we are now experiencing heavy pollution migration from Asia.  In India, an astonishing one out of every four deaths are attributed to pollution. In China, there is a term for “cancer villages” in which a huge percentage of the citizens are developing cancers due to horrific environmental conditions. In China, one out of every five deaths are attributed to pollution with 1.8 million premature deaths a year.


People rarely associate changes in environmental regulation to their own risk of death or illnesses like asthma.  The result is that it is difficult to defend environmental protections on a cost/benefit basis despite the fact that the costs are quite high for many environmental rollbacks.  Jobs and tax cuts tend to be more quantifiable in the minds of voters even though one cannot avoid the environmental costs from increased air pollution or water pollution.  Again, this does not mean that we yield to all countervailing environmental concerns but rather this study (and others that we have discussed) show that the true costs of environmental rollbacks are far higher than presumed in the public

96 thoughts on “Study: Pollution Kills More People Than War, Smoking, Hunger, and Other Causes of Death”

  1. One word: Methodology
    Determining cause of death is hard in many cases, but I don’t know how one can scientifically or with any accuracy, claim to know that any person died earlier (let alone how much earlier). There have to be a ton of assumptions in this “study”
    Yes, science is a great thing, but when someone as smart and learned as JT says “study” and isn’t suspicious….it’s an indication how faith is hurting science.
    It’s all about headlines, short-attention spans and a total lack of understanding that science is all about skepticism.

    1. Lifelong smokers who get lung cancer and die will have “cancers” as the cause of death on their death certificate and not the cause of the cancer which is the friggin smoking.

    2. Interesting comment. I am a scientist and I totally agree that science is about skepticism and how a study was done is key. I haven’t read the study yet, but my first question when I heard about it (not here) was “it will be interesting to see how they determined pollution was the cause of death.” I’ll check it out and see what I think. Ever read “The China study” on cancer?

  2. The usually discerning and analytical JT just swoons when he reads studies like this. We all have our weaknesses.

    1. Nick,
      It’s his kryptonite. Have you ever read or heard him make a constitutional argument that would address these issues he’s so passionate about?

  3. The Lancet is not the most trustworthy source of science – not being immune to fads. Also, did the study address tradeoffs? What are the alternatives and the adverse consequences – what could the resources used to “clean up the environment” have been used for elsewhere? The problem of death rates due to pollution is certainly not a big factor in the US compared to what you quote worldwide. So, why attack Trump because a lot of poorer countries have lifestyles that expose them to a lot of pollution. And for the poor people in these countries, the immediate impact of cleaning up their environment could well be an increase in their death rate. Again, where are the resources and what are they being used for now. JT, I have a lot of respect for you, but please – TRADEOFFS AND ADVERSE CONSEQUENCES.

  4. The genesis and propagation of organisms such as extremophiles in polluted environments does not mean that most other organisms are not existentially threatened. Science knows of many examples, such as water bears or archaea which survive environments immediately lethal to humans. But unless you are one of these, you might not like the world that awaits you if we compromise ours.

      1. ” I know a lot of big words too.”
        Good for you Issac. We’ll put a gold star sticker on your report card.

  5. Pollution does more than just kill people, it destroys economic potential for areas adjacent to urban waterways allowed to become polluted. The main river that runs through the town where I live has been used as a sewer since the city has been here. Not just raw sewage directly from homes and businesses, but waste products from factories, including heavy metals, petroleum run off, and chemical waste. There have been massive fish kills, and the fish that remain aren’t safe to consume. The water contains life-threatening levels of bacteria and pollution, and isn’t safe for swimming. Now, the city fathers and mothers have come up with the idea of using the river and its banks for economic development. They want to construct a bathing beach, with sand trucked in, restaurants, shops, boat rides, and so forth. They are literally crazy. The cost to plug and divert sewer and other waste lines, to dredge up and clear decades worth of heavy metals that have sunk to the bottom and to clear out the discarded trash, appliances, old automobiles, riparian garbage, rodents, undiscovered animal and human dead bodies and other pollutants would be prohibitive, and it would be too unsafe to do anything less if people would be getting into the water for recreation. This work would need to be done for several miles upstream, at least. The cost would be staggering, and could have been prevented if prior generations hadn’t allowed the river to become a sewer. That’s what short-sighted thinking does: it forecloses future possibilities. We need to take this lesson to heart for future generations.

      1. Sounds like Tijuana. We used to go down there to drink when I was in college. Walking from the border entry gate into town was maybe a few blocks, and walking past that river was foul. We could see t-paper and the associated waste products, garbage, old tires, etc. The smell was putrid and the air within a mile of Tijuana, including the U.S. side, made our eyes burn.

      2. Natacha said, “The main river that runs through the town where I live has been used as a sewer since the city has been here.”

        TSFS asked, “Which river is this?”

        According to the USGS and the EPA, 95% of solid waste in the United States is discharged untreated to local waterways. And the contributions from industrial solid waste discharges typically equal municipal waste discharges in most US waterways, with the concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids gradually increasing as the waterways approach sea-level.

        So the main river in Natacha’s hometown might not be atypical for rivers in The U. S. However, atypical waterways might be found in places such as Cheyenne, Wyoming, where municipal waste streams generally contribute less TDS than mining and extraction industries contribute. Other exceptions might include food-processing plants without lagoons nor constructed wetlands located in less populated areas.

        1. According to the USGS and the EPA, 95% of solid waste in the United States is discharged untreated to local waterways.

          Sewage treatment plants with at least primary treatment were bog standard in American cities 40 years ago. Out in the countryside, household waste is discharged into leech fields.

          1. I wrote it wrong. It’s not solid waste. It’s waste water containing either dissolved solids or suspended solids. And the total wastewater stream at issue includes storm water and agricultural runoff. BTW, the US EPA website changed its format on January 20th, 2017. The data at issue is no longer available on-line there. Coincidence?

  6. I have not looked at the study you cite, but the methodology on these types of studies tends to suck.

    They make myriads of false assumptions.

    Humans do not live forever.

    Claims that pollution substantially reduces life expectancy are dubious.

    The fact that your study claims the effects of pollution are greater than those of smoking – automatically makes it greatly suspect.

    We have a pretty good idea what the actual effects of exposure to asbestos fibers, and cigarrette smoke are.
    We also know what the effects of exposure to things like chlorine gas are.

    All of these are harmfull. All of these have relatively small impacts on life expectancy.
    Each can absolutely kill – but only a small portion of people.

    Claim that pollution in the US which is far less potent than gasses like chlorine or other pollutants like cigarettes and asbestos fibres should pretty much automatically be rejected.

    That is like claiming that exposure to concrete is more dangerous than exposure to nuclear waste.

    Further this nonsense is almost certainly rooted in the zero tollerance fallacies.

    First there is no such thing as a pollutant.
    Everything is toxic at some dose – including oxygen and water.
    While many things that can kill us are useful even necescary in small doses.

    We know that the 20th century reductions in indoor air pollution have significantly INCREASED asthma rates.

    The point is that you can not say that if you reduce the exposure to X by 10% and you overall see a Y decrease in mortality that you THINK has a cause and effect relationship, that you can not presume that the total mortality do to X is 10Y – it could easily be 2Y or merely Y.

    And that presumes you accurately arrived at Y – which itself is a completely impossible task.

    Regardless, we get alot of this crap today.

    We get numbers thrown arround as if they are correct and meaningful.

    1. Agreed. And you have to look at who did the “study”, or who paid for it.

    2. dhlii said, “First there is no such thing as a pollutant. Everything is toxic at some dose – including oxygen and water. While many things that can kill us are useful even necessary in small doses.”

      Think of pollution as a belief the veracity of which is determined by the utility of avoiding excessive doses of der dang in sich–then repeat that to yourself over and over again until it finally sinks in.

  7. The data in the study show the highest pollution related death rates occur mostly in very poor countries as those in much of Africa. See the map the Irish Times produced about the Lancet study here:

    Those very poor people have a lower life expectancy due mostly to INDOOR air pollution. To cook and to stay warm, people barely scratching out a living to survive rely heavily on primitive solid fuels: wood, dung, peat, etc. The smoke inhalation is in part why they live shorter lives.

    Professor Turley very cleverly did not reference pollution related death rates in the U.S. According to the study, death rates attributable to pollution in the U.S. rank among the lowest of the 188 countries studied. Brunei, an outlier, is the lowest at 2.58%. I quickly eyeballed it, but I think the second lowest is New Zealand at 4.99%. The U.S. was 5.74%. There are a half dozen or so countries between New Zealand and the U.S., but at less than a 1% difference between them, the difference is statistically insignificant.

    Bangladesh is the highest at 26.57%.

    From the Irish Times article, here’s what a scientist said about using solid fuel in Ireland:

    “These “extreme air pollution events are driven by burning of solid residential fuel (namely, peat, wood and biomass) and even though less than 4 per cent solid fuel is consumed, this accounts disproportionately for 70 per cent of the pollution”.”

    If you care about the poor, you want them to adopt free market economies with a stable rule of law and private property rights. Those raise everybody’s standard of living and increase societal wealth. Once an economy develops so most people’s basic survival needs are met (think Maslow), the concept of “rights” expand. People start caring as much about the rights of others as their own. So in free market economies that have raised everybody’s living standards and produced enormous amounts of wealth, you see “rights” for minorities, women, animals, homosexuals, and the environment expand. People don’t care as much about those things when they scratch out an agrarian subsistence. Their primary concern then is preventing their kids from freezing to death or starving. They could care less about the environment.

  8. Having read the Lancet screed, I would have to agree that it is basically propaganda. There is no way they can get the figures they are getting without making some of them up. It may be a global village, but parts of it do not play well with others. And how the heck do you know that pollution caused a heart attack? Did they study motorcycle drivers who would be most prone to pollution? I saw no evidence in the study of that, just references to commuting which is not going to change unless major corporations allow employees to telecommute from home. But, there are some things we all still have to drive to or take the subway to, like the Cubs game, Arizona State University (which has a population of 60, 000 students alone and gods know how many faculty and staff), etc. Homecoming at ASU this weekend, the stadium houses 50,000 and there is a good chance ASU will win.

    Actually, I have never seen a study so flawed in my entire life and that count the climate change ones. The Lancet is just chasing someone’s money.

    1. It’s difficult for anyone without granular knowledge of statistics to assess the utility and probity of an epidemiological study. Again, The Lancet has published some dubious material.

  9. I’m just glad our overlords Al Gore and Leonardo DeCaprio live such pure and holy lives, generating only small fraction of the carbon footprint of the average American.

    /sarc off………….Gore’s footprint is about 100x greater than the average American. DeCaprio flew his private jet to Europe and back only to pick up his ecology award, which belongs stuffed up his backside. How can you take scientists seriously when they don’t scorn these two most public hypocrites for their “cause.”

    Check the 6 mos. old TED talk where a scientist states his case in 18 minutes: carbon fuel does indeed cause global warming, but money spent to stop it has the worst ratio of benefit per dollar of all the causes he lists. (IIRC AIDS has the highest ratio of benefit per dollar.) He hypothesizes it simply costs too many trillion of dollars to net a tiny, tiny benefit Re. carbon footprint.

    Then-ex-Utah Governor Huntsman was GOP POTUS candidate in 2008 or 2012. While he governed Utah, Utah tied with NH for best run State government.

    While campaigning, Jon said the actual price in dollars per gallon of fuel, when accounting for military excursions and health related costs, was some astronomical number in the mid teens. I have every reason to believe what he said, and no reason to disbelieve it.

    Of course, starting right about that time, you never heard from him again, the result of MSM and TPTB blacklisting him for telling the truth on such a sensitive subject.

    US taxpayers make up the difference in actual cost per gallon v. the price paid at the pump. Fox News commentator/psychiatrist/lawyer Charles Krauthammer is so-called “conservative” with whom I generally agree except for his Israel-first stance. He repeatedly promoted increased Federal fuel tax when prices are low as they have been for many years now.

  10. Does anybody blame me for NOT believing the Lancet Study? It’s not that I disbelieve it necessarily, but that I just don’t believe it. Too many studies are slanted for political purposes nowadays.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

    1. As noted, The Lancet has damaged its reputation in the past. Doesn’t make the study invalid, but it does generate a certain skepticism which would not otherwise be there.

  11. Now a new major study has found that environmental pollution kills more people every year that all of the wars. It exceeds the death tolls for smoking, hunger or natural disasters combined. It kills more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Yet, unlike these causes of death, pollution remains a policy concern that is often pushed to the side for more immediate goals like job creation.

    The pollution does not ‘kill’ people. It reduces life expectancy when compared to a prelapsarian state. Whether or not the prelapsarian state has ever existed or could ever exist is something you have to explore.

    There are always trade-offs in human action. The economic activity which generates prosperity which enhances life-expectancy also generates waste which may reduce life expectancy. The question at hand is whether or not you’ve selected the appropriate trade-off and have crafted practices and institutions which can reliably identify it. Economists understand this and businessmen understand this. Lawyers do not.

  12. slohrss29:

    It is often said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Complete ignorance can be tragic. But willful ignorance is merely obnoxious. Unless you are a graduate of the Michele Bachmann College of Chemistry, you should know that even essential gases such as CO2 can be harmful. I recall playing the old breathe rapidly into a paper bag game with my friends when I was young and laughing over the temporary unconsciousness that produces. As an advanced scuba diver for many decades, I have seen the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning firsthand. And the greenhouse gas effect from the emission of carbon dioxide in amounts beyond the capacity of the planet to absorb it is basic science. But what particularly disturbs me is our willingness, for reasons based purely on ideology, to intentionally expose the powerless to the detrimental effects of our greed and in support of a dying fossil fuel industry. That is ultimately the point of Prof. Turley’s post.

    I love the effective use of sarcasm. Snark in the service of denialism, however, fails to make a useful point and merely amplifies the absurdity of the publisher’s position.

    1. The CO2 debate is just a reflection of some pretty bad science and public policy pressure. I have always been concerned about pollution, especially where I live, which is near the Potomac River Valley. The challenge still seems to be getting a real and accurate picture of the problem. Like the defense industry, there is a lot of money riding on government standpoints on this issue. Like the CO2 debate, there seems to be conflicting reporting. This letter at junkscience highlights how studies not supporting the hypothesis are being ignored. This is a huge problem.

    2. It is often said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Complete ignorance can be tragic. But willful ignorance is merely obnoxious. Unless you are a graduate of the Michele Bachmann College of Chemistry,

      Progressive politics in our time is generally reducible to people with an inflated sense of self signaling what they take to be their sophistication in the course of delineating in-groups and out-groups.

  13. Also rarely discussed is the environmental impact of immigration, especially from 3d world countries. I have neighbors from China, Pakistan and Haiti. None of them had cars in their home countries. Now, each household has three vehicles, including large SUVs. I had to laugh when my county issued recycling bins. Why bother? I can recycle every aluminum can or glass bottle I ever get, and it’s not going to make a dent in the impact of transporting hundreds of thousands of people yearly from low-carbon footprint countries to the highest consumer consumption country in the history of the earth.

      1. Not really. People on welfare in the U.S.; people with minimum wage jobs, often have cars. Probably not in cities, but certainly in rural and suburban areas. Guys who come here from rural Mexico and start a lawn mowing business are going to need a truck to haul equipment around. Even affluent people in Europe are less likely to own a car than a low-income person in the U.S.

  14. Not according to Trump and Inhofe, and the rest of the idiots that some how have formed a pond scum on our society. The smell of pollution, why that’s just the smell of success.

  15. No, forget about pollution. It’s the Russians and CO2 that are bringing on the end. Everywhere I go, there’s CO2–I can’t take it anymore! What do think I am, a plant? Time to fight back against the scourge of the plant world. And what about the rabbits??

    I feel bad for the rabbits in Natacha’s neighborhood.

      1. Putin is probably cares more about pollution than does the earth burner Trump.

        Of course that would explain his motivation to acquire 20% of the U.S. uranium market.

    1. Slohrs-
      Not sure what you are talking about, but in your defense of the use of CO2 by plants, recognize that before plants can use the CO2 from carbon burning emissions, those carbon gasses serve to keep heat within the very thin atmosphere of the Earth. In a feedback loop, that heat causes droughts and forest fires, creating more carbon gasses, melting ice – reducing the reflection of heat, and hotter ocean temperatures creating more severe hurricanes, tidal waves, and the death of ocean life.

      Those who advocate greater destruction of the environment, are simply refusing to accept proven evidence of its consequences.

        1. One does get the impression that progressives are like Dickens’ Harold Skimpole. They have no conception that what one consumes is generated by someone else’s productive activity. They think bread comes from the bread delivery truck.

      1. You are absolutely correct. And there are thousands of people throughout Appalachia who have been intentionally lied to with false promises about the restoration of a coal industry in its death throes.

        1. The industry ‘in its death throes’ accounts for 30% of the electricity generated in the United States. Another 20% is generated by nuclear power plants, institutions tree-huggers have despised since around about 1970. Federal subsidies to wind and solar power have ramped up capacity to the point that they account for….6.5% of the electricity generated.

          1. SteppingOnToads, DesperatlySeekingSusan, TurleysSpamFilterStinks:

            So what of the remaining 43.5%?

        2. Intentionally promised by the Obeyme regime who cared nothing for the working class and simply wrote them out of the equation using the theory they could more easily fund government by borrowing and raising taxes using the cycle of economic repression borrow inflate, devalue (30% on that one) and repudiate by not adding the resulting true rise in the cost of living to the COLA. which directly attacked the retirees, the ELDERLY and the jobless workers with the admonition . “Let them flip burgers.”

          All the legacy of a lawyer who did not understand the law much less the Constitution no hold any allegiance in that direction but to a foreign ideology and Keynesian Socialism…

          FORGETTING Keynes himself said it will work until you can’t service the debt.

          and then tried to correct Keynes by borrowing with no collateral. No gold, no full faith, no credit leaving nothing but a standard of FEAR.

          While this thing who would be King or God left with a 16% retirement pay increase while presenting us with a point zero two COLA the rest having gone to shore up Medicare and something called unAffordable Insurance.

          One thing leads to the other. All connected and their glue in a tube labeled “Do Not Use If Results Are Expected’ …..Failed.

          We don’t believe you anymore. You have cried not wolf but woof woof woof too much.

          /s/ The independent moderate Constitutional Centrists who provided the largest share of the votes.

          Have a really bad day.

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