WHO Analyzes Countries' Environmental Health Problems

Indian woman cooking
In many regions, switching to cleaner cooking fuels can help prevent severe respiratory infections.

Thirteen million deaths could be prevented worldwide each year by improving the health of the environment, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In June, the Geneva-based agency released the first ever country-by-country analysis on the effects of environmental factors on health. Low-income countries are the worst off when it comes to environmental health risks, according to the study, but the health of citizens in all countries could benefit significantly from effective interventions.

In some countries, more than one third of the disease burden could be avoided by improving the environment, according to the WHO. Afghanistan, Angola, Burkina Faso and Mali are the countries most burdened by environment-related diseases, such as diarrheal disease and lower respiratory infections. In 23 countries, more than 10 percent of all deaths are due to unsafe water (including poor sanitation and hygiene) and to indoor air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.

People in low-income countries lose an estimated 20 times more healthy years of life per person annually than people in high-income countries. But even in high-income countries, environmental improvements could reduce the risks of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and road traffic injuries.

The environmental factors studied in the WHO assessment included pollution, workplace hazards, ultraviolet (UV) radiation, noise, agricultural practices, climate change, ecosystem change, the built environment, and behavior. The report concludes that changes on an individual level can dramatically reduce mortality rates. For example, using cleaner fuels, improved cooking devices, increased ventilation, and behavior modifications such as keeping children away from smoke could greatly reduce the respiratory burden on women and children.

The WHO study aims to inspire community and national leaders to look more closely at options for improving public health and the environment. “These country estimates are a first step towards assisting national decision-makers…to set priorities for preventive action,” noted Susanne Weber-Mosdorf, WHO Assistant Director-General for Sustainable Development and Healthy Environments. “It is important to quantify the burden of disease from unhealthy environments. This information is key to help countries select the appropriate interventions.”

Suggested improvements for leaders include promoting household water treatment and storage and implementing energy policies that support development and health.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.