Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world. For example, according to a recent study in the journal Environmental Research, 10.3 million premature deaths annually are attributable to outdoor air pollution.
The number of estimated excess annual deaths due to lower respiratory infections in children (4 years and younger) because of that type of pollutant is estimated to be 876 in North America, 747 in South America, and 605 in Europe. Yet despite the devastating effect on humanity, pollution is a topic hardly discussed in public—even among Christians.
Here are nine things you should know about pollution and its effect on our global neighbors.
1. The three major types of pollution affect people’s air, water, and land.
Pollution, specifically environmental pollution, is the addition of any substance (solid, liquid, or gas) or any form of energy (such as heat, sound, or radioactivity) to the environment at a rate faster than it can be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, or stored in some harmless form.
2. About 3.8 million people die each year from indoor air pollution.
Household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels results in 4.3 million premature deaths each year—almost three times as many as died from HIV/AIDS. More than 50 percent of premature deaths among children younger than five are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (such as soot) that children inhale in household air pollution.
3. Every day almost half the planet’s population is exposed to toxic levels of household air pollution.
The exposure is because they use solid fuels, a term that includes biomass fuels (derived from plant sources) or coal for combustion. This releases carbon monoxide and particulate matter. The problem arises because solid fuel is commonly used in homes with poor or non-existent chimney ventilation.
4. Air pollution has been a problem since the days of Ancient Rome.
The advent of metallurgy and large-scale agriculture starting around 100 B.C., Smithsonian Magazine reports, resulted in an increase in a particular type of air pollutant: methane gas. The ancient Romans kept domesticated livestock (such as cows, sheep, and goats), which excrete methane gas as a byproduct of digestion. About the same time, the Han dynasty in China expanded its rice fields, which harbor methane-producing bacteria. Blacksmiths in both empires produced methane gas when they burned wood to create metal tools and weapons.
5. Every year, more people around the world die from polluted water than from all forms of violence, including war.
Pollutants are typically the cause of degraded water quality around the world. Major water pollutants, according to the United Nations, include microbes, nutrients, heavy metals, organic chemicals, oil, and sediments. The most significant sources of water pollution are a result inadequate treatment of human wastes and the improper management and treatment of industrial and agricultural wastes. An estimated 2 million tons of sewage and other liquid waste drains into the world’s waters daily.
6. Pollution is expensive.
According to a study by the British medical journal The Lancet, pollution-related diseases cause productivity losses that reduce gross domestic product in low-income to middle-income countries by up to 2 percent per year. Pollution-related disease also results in health-care costs that are responsible for 1.7 percent of annual health spending in high-income countries and for up to 7 percent of health spending in middle-income countries that are heavily polluted and rapidly developing. The total loss due to pollution is estimated to amount to $4.6 trillion per year, or 6.2 percent of global economic output.
7. Preventing and eliminating pollution is cost-effective.
The Lancet’s report points out that much pollution can be eliminated, and that prevention can be highly cost-effective:
High-income and some middle-income countries have enacted legislation and issued regulations mandating clean air and clean water, established chemical safety policies, and curbed their most flagrant forms of pollution. Their air and water are now cleaner, the blood lead concentrations of their children have decreased by more than 90%, their rivers no longer catch fire, their worst hazardous waste sites have been re-mediated, and many of their cities are less polluted and more liveable. Health has improved and people in these countries are living longer. High-income countries have achieved this progress while increasing gross domestic product (GDP) by nearly 250%. . . . The claim that pollution control stifles economic growth and that poor countries must pass through a phase of pollution and disease on the road to prosperity has repeatedly been proven to be untrue.
8. Pollution disproportionately kills the poor and the vulnerable.
As The Lancet notes, almost all pollution-related deaths—nearly 92 percent—occur in low-income and middle-income countries. Children face the highest risks because small exposures to chemicals in utero and in early childhood can result in lifelong disease, disability, premature death, and reduced learning and earning potential.
9. Addressing pollution is a Christian obligation.
Pollution is an effect of sin, both on humanity and on the rest of creation. As Paul wrote, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:20–21).
Commenting on this passage and on Romans 6:8, Francis Schaeffer wrote in Pollution and the Death of Man (1970): “We should be looking now, on the basis of the work of Christ, for substantial healing in every area affected by the Fall.” While we may not be able to completely reverse the effects of sin in the form of pollution, we have an obligation as Christians to our neighbors (Mark 12:31) and to God (Gen. 1:28) to reduce the harm of pollution.