Pollution: The world’s leading killer

 (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

On the morning of October 27, 1948, Wednesday, a heavy smog settled down over the area surrounding Donora, Pennsylvania in the United States.  Weathermen described it as “a temperature inversion” and was so thick that it evoked comments from the residents.

According to the public health bulletin issued by the US Public Health Service, “the streamers of carbon appeared to hang motionless in the air” and “the visibility was so poor that even natives of the area became lost.”

The smog continued through Thursday, but there was no still no commotion other than that of conversational comments. On Friday, however, there was a marked increase of illness among the residents.

“By Friday evening, the physicians’ telephone exchange was flooded with calls for medical aid, and the doctors were making calls unceasingly to care for their patients,” the health bulletin reported.  “Many persons were sent to nearby hospitals…”


Still there was no alarm.  The first casualty was reported by early Saturday morning.  More followed in quick succession during the day and by nightfall word of these deaths was racing through the town.  By 11:30 that night, 17 persons were dead.  Two more died on Sunday, and still another who fell ill during the smog was to die a week later on November 8.

“On Sunday afternoon, rain came to clear away the smog,” the health bulletin said.  “But hundreds were still ill, and the rest of the residents were still stunned by the number of deaths that had taken place during the preceding 36 hours.”

The dramatic event may have not happened yet in the Philippines but it may soon occur if Filipinos continue to pollute the air they breathe.  “Air pollution is causing serious health problems and lower productivity, severely impacting the Filipinos’ quality of life,” pointed out Robert Vance Pulley, former World Bank Country director to the Philippines.


A joint study made by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) a couple of years back has identified Metro Manila as one of the 20 cities with more or less 10 million people “where air pollution is posing increasingly serious health problems to its residents.”

“If you remain unconvinced about how serious the problem is, car owners can try an experiment,” Pulley suggested.  “Just tape pieces of ‘filtrete’ available from hardware stores over the air conditioning vents inside your car.  As you watch particulates turn the filter black over a few weeks, think of your lungs – and imagine how much worse it is for the majority who ride in jeepneys or tricycles and can least afford the related health costs.”

A recent World Bank study showed that in terms of lost wages, medical treatment, and premature loss of life, the costs of air pollution to urban residents are about US$1.5 billion a year or about 2% of gross domestic product.  In the Philippines, it means spending around P2,000 per person for treatment and medication for health-related illnesses brought about by air pollution.


The most common forms of air pollutants are suspended particulate matter (SPM), carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons (which include benzene, xylene, and ethylene dibromide), sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and residues of the highly toxic tetraethyl lead, a substance added to gasoline to enhance its octane value or “burning quality.”

A new report published by “The Lancet” said that exposure to polluted air, water and soil caused more than nine million premature deaths in 2015.  The causes of deaths vary – cancer, lung disease, and heart disease – but the report linked these deaths to pollution, “drawing upon previous studies that show how pollution is tied to a wider range of diseases than previously thought,” wrote Susan Brink, who has written a news based on the released report.

“The nine million figure adds up to 16% of all deaths worldwide, killing three times more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined,” Brink noted.  “Pollution is responsible for 15 times more deaths than wars and other forms of violence.”

Pollution is even responsible for more deaths compared with the drug use, according to the report.  On global scale, only 0.49 million deaths were caused by drug-related incidents.  In addition, 1.41 million people died as a result of malnutrition.

Only the combination of tobacco smoking (7.17 million deaths) and alcohol use (2.31 million deaths) surpassed the record caused by pollution: 9.48 million deaths versus 9.19 million deaths.


In 2014, multi-awarded journalist and author Stephen Leahy debunked the position that disease is the biggest killer in the developing world.  It’s pollution, he said, as it takes the lives of more than 8.4 million people each year.  “However, pollution receives a fraction of the interest from the global community,” the Canadian journalist lamented.

For his news report, his source of information was Dr. Richard Fuller, president of the Pure Earth/Blacksmith Institute, which prepared the analysis as part of The Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP). GAHP is a collaborative body of bilateral, multilateral, and international agencies, national governments, academia and civil society.

“Pollution is sometimes called the invisible killer… its impact is difficult to track because health statistics measure disease, not pollution,” Fuller said.  However, he added that “toxic sites along with air and water pollution impose a tremendous burden on the health systems of developing countries.”

The “Lancet”-published report said every country in the world is affected, whether industrialized or developing.  But 92% of the reported deaths are from low- and middle-income countries.

“Pollution in rapidly developing countries is just getting worse and worse and worse. And it isn’t getting attention it deserves.  It needs to be rigorously studied,” wrote Dr. Philip Landrigan, pediatrician and professor of environmental medicine and global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.  He, together with Dr. Fuller, conducted the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health.

As pollution is described as an “invisible killer,” it is often misrepresented as a minor health issue, according to Dr. Fuller.  In the new report, it was stated that “the health-related costs of pollution are hidden in hospital budgets.”

Brink, who authored “The Fourth Trimester,” asked what “hidden costs” means.  Dr. Landrigan replied: “Say a person comes into the hospital with cardiac arythmia.  Nobody makes the connection that it happened a day when air pollution was extremely high.  Rates of heart disease and stroke are kicked up by air pollution.”

The American Heart Association reported that inhaled nanoparticles of pollution can play a role in rupturing plaque build-up in arteries, causing a heart attack or stroke.


When people talk about pollution, they only mean air pollution.  But there is also such thing as water pollution and soil pollution.  When pollutants are released to water bodies (lakes, rivers, oceans, aquifers and groundwater) without adequate treatment to remove harmful compounds, water pollution occurs.

(AP Photo/Pat Roque)

Greenpeace, in its website, reported that water pollution in the Philippines is mostly wastewater from the following sources: industrial (lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium and cyanide), agriculture (decayed plants, dead animals, livestock manure, soil runoff, pesticides and fertilizers), domestic sewage, oil factories, mining companies and chemical spills.

The Water Environmental Partnership in Asia reported that water pollution’s effects cost the Philippines approximately US$1.3 billion annually.  The government monitoring data found out that “58% of the groundwater tested was contaminated with coliform.”  In addition, “approximately one-third of illnesses monitored during a five-year period were caused by water-borne sources.”

Soil pollution occurs “when soil contains chemicals that are toxic or otherwise dangerous for humans and other living things.”  Toxins in waste materials like anti-freeze and chemicals seep into the ground where they remain for years.

“Many modern-day chemicals and materials either do not biodegrade or break down, or if they do, then break down into smaller chemical particles,” one environmentalist wrote.  “These particles poison the ground itself.”

Fil V. Elefante, in a recent feature, wrote that the Filipinos generating solid waste by bulk, which end up in bodies of water or lands.  Based on the data released by the National Solid Waste Management Commission, about 38,757 tons of solid waste were generated in 2014.  The figure went up to 39,422 tons in 2015.  By 2016, it has been projected that the number of solid waste to be generated will be 40,087 tons.

A 2012 study by Blacksmith, quoted by the Inter Press Service, estimated that mining waste, lead smelters, industrial dumps and other toxic sites affect the health of 125 million people in 49 developing countries.

Meanwhile, a growing body of scientific evidence is revealing an astonishing array of illness including cancers, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, Alzheimer’s and depression, with links to the ever-increasing amount of toxic chemicals in human’s bodies, said Julian Cribb, author of the new book “Poisoned Planet: how constant exposure to man-made chemicals is putting your life at risk.” G




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