WHO: 'Unhealthy' environments cause 12.6 million deaths a year

Low & middle-income countries bear the greatest environmental burden in all types of diseases & injuries.

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JOHANNESBURG - The World Health Organisation says nearly 12.6 million deaths recorded each year are caused by unhealthy living or working conditions across the world, making up one quarter of the total global deaths.

The second edition of the report, Preventing disease through healthy environments: a global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks, reveals that since the report was first published a decade ago, deaths due to no communicable diseases (NCDs), mostly attributable to air pollution (including exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke), amount to as much as 8.2 million of these deaths.

The organisations Dr Margaret Chan says, "A healthy environment underpins a healthy population. If countries do not take actions to make environments where people live and work healthy, millions will continue to become ill and die too young."

Cost-effective measures have been suggested in the report to reverse the upward trend of environment-related disease and deaths in countries, including less use of solid fuels for cooking and increasing access to low-carbon energy technologies.

It also cites proven strategies for improving the environment and preventing diseases like using clean technologies and fuels for domestic cooking, heating and lighting would reduce acute respiratory infections, chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases and burns.

Increasing access to safe water and adequate sanitation and promoting hand washing would further reduce diarrhoeal diseases.

The report finds young people and older people are more prone to environmental risk, with children under five and adults aged 50 to 75 years most impacted.

The organisation says yearly, the deaths of 1.7 million children under 5 and 4.9 million adults aged 50 to 75 could be prevented through better environmental management. Lower respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases mostly impact children under five, while older people are most impacted by NCDs.

Low- and middle-income countries are said to bear the greatest environmental burden in all types of diseases and injuries, however for certain NCDs, such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers, the per capita disease burden can also be relatively high in high-income countries.


  • 2.2 million deaths annually in African Region

  • 847 000 deaths annually in Region of the Americas

  • 854 000 deaths annually in Eastern Mediterranean Region

  • 1.4 million deaths annually in European Region

  • 3.8 million deaths annually in South-East Asia Region

  • 3.5 million deaths annually in Western Pacific Region

The vast majority of environment-related deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke and ischaemic heart disease:

Stroke - 2.5 million deaths annually

Ischaemic heart disease - 2.3 million deaths annually

Unintentional injuries (such as road traffic deaths) - 1.7 million deaths annually

Cancers - 1.7 million deaths annually

Chronic respiratory diseases - 1.4 million deaths annually

Diarrhoeal diseases - 846 000 deaths annually

Respiratory infections - 567 000 deaths annually

Neonatal conditions - 270 000 deaths annually

Malaria - 259 000 deaths annually

Intentional injuries (such as suicides) - 246 000 deaths annually

WHO is working with countries to take action on both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

At the World Health Assembly in May, WHO will propose a road map for an enhanced global response by the health sector aimed at reducing the adverse health effects of air pollution.