Living or working in an unhealthy environment caused almost one-quarter of all deaths worldwide in 2012, a report made public Tuesday by the World Health Organization (WHO) found.
In that year, about 12.6 million people died due to human-caused environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposure, climate change and ultraviolet radiation, the study found.
Environmental hazards and risks wield "a devastating impact" on global health, the report said.
“A healthy environment underpins a healthy population,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, in a statement. “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,” she said.
Environmental risks are deadliest for young children and older people, the report said, with children under five and adults aged 50 to 75 years most imperiled. Yearly, 1.7 million children under five and 4.9 million adults aged 50 to 75 deaths could be prevented through better environmental management.
Geographically, the report said Asia had the largest environment-related disease burden. This includes countries such as China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Second-hand smoke was considered one of the causes of the deadly air pollution. “Cigarette smoking is an enormous problem in developing countries,” said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, a senior scientific advisor for the American Lung Association.
Although smoking rates have declined in developed countries such as the USA, he said rates are rising in developing nations.
Climate change could also be increasing the spread of mosquito-borne diseases, Edelman said. “As temperatures become warmer, it creates a more welcoming environment for mosquitoes.”
"The main message emerging from this new comprehensive global assessment is that premature death and disease can be prevented through healthier environments," the report concludes.
Contributing: Liz Szabo, USA TODAY