Streets cloaked in smog. Water sources choked with sewage. Farmland blighted by industrial runoff. Around the world, pollution undermines the basic building blocks of life — air, water, and food — in ways that can severely harm a person’s well-being.
In Tanzania, electronic waste has become big business. But the country, which has a poverty rate near 70%, has little e-waste management capacity, which means hazardous materials are regularly disposed of in ways that contaminate groundwater supplies.
After China banned the import of different types of plastic waste, South Korea became a dumping ground for countries with too much garbage. As a result, the country’s North Gyeongsang Province is now home to a mountain of plastic waste that’s been continuously burning for months, making the air highly toxic.
Throughout the streets of Mumbai, India, exhaust from cars and factories has regularly made the air so thick with harmful particles that the government has marshaled water cannons to clean the atmosphere.
But the burden of pollution is not shared evenly across populations. Instead, pollution is most keenly felt by the world’s most impoverished and marginalized communities.
Here are three ways people in poverty are most affected by pollution.
Air pollution is rampant around the world, leading to more than 8.8 million premature deaths every year. But the people most affected by air pollution live in low-income countries, according to the United Nations.
In fact, people living in sub-Saharan Africa are 23 times more likely to die from air pollution than people living in New Zealand and Australia. People living in East and South Asia are 13 times more likely to die from breathing in too much particulate matter than people living in Europe.
India, which until recently had the highest portion of people living in extreme poverty, is home to the 14 cities with the worst air quality.
Heavily polluting industries often get outsourced to poor countries where environmental regulations tend to be weaker, which leads to worse health outcomes, including lung and heart diseases, for the people living there.
It’s not just poor countries that suffer from dangerous air pollution. In wealthier nations, contaminated air is also common, but it primarily pervades poor communities, and a growing body of evidence has linked socioeconomic status to exposure to particulate matter.
In the US, white people generate the majority of air pollution, yet black and Hispanic populations bear the brunt of this environmental hazard.
Clean drinking water is critical to living a healthy life.
Yet 1 in 9 people around the world — or 844 million people — lack access to clean, reliable drinking water. The vast majority of these people also live in extreme poverty and children are often hit the hardest by this injustice.
In fact, 6,000 children under the age of 5 die every day because of preventable waterborne diseases.
Drinking water is contaminated and rendered dangerous in a number of ways. Most often, inadequate sanitation systems cause sewage to be dumped directly into bodies of water. In Nigeria, for example, 123 million people don’t have access to a decent toilet, which causes human waste to regularly undermine drinking sources, leading to 59,500 children under the age of 5 dying from waterborne diseases every year.
In addition to children dying, many more become stunted because poor water quality inhibits their ability to absorb nutrients. Stunting is a lifelong condition in which a child’s brain and body fail to fully develop because of a dearth of nutrients early in life.
Women are also disportionately affected by lack of clean drinking water, because they’re often forced to spend hours fetching water every day when communities lack safe taps.
Water inequality is also found in wealthier countries. In the US, for example, residents of Flint, Michigan, still lack access to reliable drinking water, a crisis that just scratches the surface of the country’s water problems.
From a shipment of lettuce with e-coli to a cantaloupe delivery marred by listeria or spoiled beef, news alerts about massive food recalls are commonplace — and they often help to curb outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
But contaminated food still affects 600 million people each year, killing 420,000, according to the World Health Organization. The vast majority of deaths from food poisoning occur in poor nations, and children under the age of 5 account for 40% of all deaths.
Foodborne diseases often spread because of shoddy oversight and regulation. Outbreaks happen when runoff from meat production contaminates water used for crop irrigation, tropical weather allows pests to flourish, food is improperly transported and handled, chemicals leach into food supplies, and other reasons.
But a major reason why foodborne deaths are higher in poor countries is because of inadequate health care systems. If a person is unable to access medical assistance when they get food poisoning, they’re far more likely to die. Further, these illnesses are especially harmful to people who are malnourished.
Around 815 million people around the world suffer from chronic undernourishment, meaning they rarely get enough food to eat and that food oftentimes doesn’t have much in the way of nutrients.
When foodborne illness strikes a compromised immune system, it can rapidly lead to catastrophic harms and even death.
What Needs to Be Done
Pollution is a preventable hazard and its many manifestations can be easily curbed through effective legislation.
The UN urges countries to take several steps to curb the impacts of pollution.
Children ride swings in a playground engulfed by smog in Lahore, Pakistan, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017.
First, countries should transition to clean energy economies to reduce the air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.
Industries that release toxic chemicals into waterways and agricultural areas need to either be shut down or better regulated. After all, citizens’ right to a clean environment should supersede the right of a company to profit, the UN argues.
Expanding access to clean water and sanitation systems can dramatically reduce death by waterborne diseases, and improving health care systems can help people overcome the health complications of pollution-related illnesses.
“We need the right policies,” UN environment wrote in a recent report. “We need a new approach to managing our lives and economies.”