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Nearly One Quarter of Global Deaths Environmentally Linked

FILE - A woman holds her son, suffering from dengue fever, as she sits under a mosquito net inside a dengue ward of a local hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

A new World Health Organization study estimates nearly one quarter of all annual global deaths - 12.6 million yearly - are from unhealthy environmental causes. The U.N. agency says most of these deaths could be prevented if steps were taken to improve environmental conditions.

The report says environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution; chemical exposure; climate change and ultraviolet radiation cause more than 100 diseases and injuries. It says the South-East Asia and Western Pacific Regions have the highest number of environmentally linked deaths.

A decade ago, the biggest killers were infectious diseases, such as diarrhea and malaria, linked to poor water, sanitation and waste management.

During the past 10 years, death from infectious diseases has declined because an increasing number of people have gained access to safe water and sanitation. The report finds non-communicable diseases linked to unhealthy environments now account for the largest share of global deaths.

WHO Public Health and Environmental Chief Maria Neira says among them, 8.2 million deaths are attributable to air pollution, including exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke.

“Non-communicable diseases are one of the most important epidemics and public health problems that we are facing today. So, if we could remove those environmental risk factors, we can ensure a major decrease on the incidence and prevalence of those chronic diseases,” said Neira.

The WHO report says stroke, heart diseases, cancers, and chronic respiratory disease amount to nearly two-thirds of the total deaths caused by unhealthy environments. Neira told VOA it would be far more cost effective for nations to spend less money on treatment and more on prevention.

“Ninety-seven percent of the medical expenditure, which are trillions of dollars, are going to treatment of a disease - medical care. And, only three percent of those resources are going to prevention,” she said.

WHO recommends improving the environment and preventing diseases by the use of clean technologies and fuels for domestic cooking, heating and lighting; increasing access to safe water and sanitation, improving urban transit and building energy-efficient housing.