A major analysis out last week in The Lancet finds that pollution is responsible for 9 million deaths each year. It’s a mind-boggling number that can be hard to make sense of without some sort of visual aid.
Helpfully, the authors of the 56-page pollution report have released a tool for exactly that purpose—an interactive map illustrating the study’s key findings on the geographic distribution of pollution-related deaths. In-progress databases on air, water, and soil pollution can also be accessed as separate layers. And if you’re concerned about smog in your own backyard, you can add your personal datapoint right now.
Pollution-related deaths can be broken down by type (air, water, soil, or occupational) and subtype. Within just air pollution deaths, for instance, you can see how many people are succumbing to the effects of ambient ozone exposure, tiny particles, or household pollution from solid fuels. You can get morbidly nitty-gritty.
A quick glance at overall pollution-related deaths puts the report’s major conclusion in stark relief: pollution is a problem overwhelmingly harming the poor.
“Pollution and related diseases most often affect the world’s poor and powerless, and victims are often the vulnerable and the voiceless,” Commission co-author Karti Sandilya said in a statement.
Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, and South Asia jump out as bearing a disproportionate burden of pollution-related deaths. Especially striking are the trends in deaths related to poor water quality (largely a problem in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia), and air pollution from household fuels like kerosene (prevalent across the developing world). The greatest impacts of pollution are being felt in nations undergoing rapid industrialization like India, Pakistan, and Kenya.
The authors hope that shedding a spotlight on this glaring inequality will help galvanize the political leadership needed to tackle pollution in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions.
While trends in the burden of pollution-related deaths are clear, it is more difficult to assess global patterns of air, water and soil pollution, because the datasets used to populate the map are incomplete.
Richard Fuller, president of the nonprofit Pure Earth and co-author on the new Commission report, explained that the reason the United States and Western Europe seem rife with data on air pollution isn’t that these countries have worse air, but that they have far more air quality sensors. In fact, countries with more infrastructure for monitoring air quality are likely to have better pollution-reduction policies.
The map’s data on contaminated sites is similarly incomplete, but focused on low and middle-income countries. This data was collected by investigators all over the world, mainly in partnership with Pure Earth through the Toxic Sites Identification Program.
“This is very early-stage data,” Fuller said. “Most of these countries don’t have monitors for air quality and have never looked at their contaminated soil.”
To make the database feeding the map more comprehensive, Fuller and his colleagues are enlisting the public. Anyone can go on the site and add their own observations of pollution, which are validated by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, a partnership of Pure Earth, the World Bank, UNEP, and others. Once validated, the observations are added to the map.
“We want to be able to say look, here is this specific issue that three people reported on,” Fuller said. “We’ll then validate it and be the liaison to bring that specific issue to the government.”
Check out the map to learn more about pollution trends around the world. Or, if you’ve got your own story to tell, go ahead and add it. You can also read the full Commission on Pollution and Health report here.