Everyone needs clean air to survive, yet somehow it is not an internationally recognized human right. That probably has something to do with the fact that over half of the world’s population live in areas where they breathe in toxic air. Altogether, that means there are more than 3.5 billion people inhaling dangerous air into their lungs on a daily basis.
A lot of present day discussions about pollution focus on the long-term consequences that are in store thanks to climate change. While those discussions are certainly important, the truth is that we don’t need to make predictions about future environmental catastrophe to see the harms of pollution – those harms are already here.
The Environmental Protection Index (EPI) track changes – both improvements and regressions – on a number of important environmental issues. Air that is unsafe to breathe is one area where researchers see conditions getting alarmingly worse.
Air should be life giving, but for half the world, that’s no longer the case. Currently, health officials attribute about 5.5 million deaths around the world to unclean air each year. Given that over 50 million people die in a given year, toxic air deaths account for roughly 10 percent of all deaths.
In better news, the EPI is simultaneously reporting a major decrease in consumption of polluted water. In 2000, about 1 billion people drank unsafe water, a figure that has essentially been cut in half in the past fifteen years. Access to clean water is expanding because poorer nations are industrializing and technologies are improving.
Alas, it’s hard to argue that this industrialization is a net positive for the environment. While providing clean water to hundreds of millions of people who lacked it previously is an unquestionable benefit, industrialization is also a huge reason for the rise in air pollution.
Accordingly, it’s heavily populated countries like China and India that are rapidly expanding their number of factories and businesses that are most threatened by air pollution. For example, in India and Nepal, this gross air is almost inescapable: 75 percent of the overall population in this region is regularly exposed to deadly smog.
“With the very survival of the planet at stake, we hope leaders will be inspired to act – especially in urban areas where an increasing majority of the world’s population lives,” said Kim Samuel, one of the lead researchers on the EPI report.
The health of the economy is important – but it shouldn’t come at the cost of the health of humanity. Exposing half the world to unsafe air sounds like nothing short of a catastrophe, yet it’s a choice global leaders are implicitly making by agreeing to only insignificant changes in environmental policy.
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