Curtailing environmental risks can save millions of lives

Tackling air pollution, contaminated drinking water and other environmental risks will save 13 million lives annually.

The report, released by the World Health Organization, shows that Angola, Burkina Faso, Mali and Afghanistan - all linked by poverty - are among the countries most affected by environmental risk factors that also include noise pollution, hazards in the work place, agricultural methods, and climate change.

In 23 of the 192 countries focused on in the report, more than 10 percent of deaths can be traced to just two risk factors - unsafe drinking water and indoor air pollution because of the burning of so-called solid fuels - including wood, cow dung or coal - for cooking, the WHO said.

The report also highlights that rich and more developed countries are not immune to environmental health risks.

In 53 countries in the greater European region, for example, an estimated 1.8 million deaths could be prevented each year if more efforts were made to create a healthier environment.

The report is based on 2002 data that stems from national health authorities, reviews of scientific literature and expert surveys. It also encompasses health data collected by the WHO.

Speaking in Vienna, WHO officials stressed the report was just a preliminary estimate of how environmental factors impact health, adding they hoped countries would now take steps to improve their specific situations.

"We would be very glad if these country-by-country figures are used as the basis for a discussion on effective countermeasures," Susanne Weber-Mosdorf, the WHO's assistant director-general for sustainable development and healthy environments, said at a news conference.

Simple water purification methods could decrease the incidence of diseases such as diarrhea that affect a large number of children, Weber-Mosdorf said, noting that children were particularly affected by environmental hazards.

Around the world, children under five years of age make up 74 percent of deaths due to diarrhea and respiratory infections, the WHO said.

According to other WHO data, 37 children die each day of water-related diarrhea in the greater European region, mostly in eastern and central areas.

The WHO also suggested that using gas or electricity for cooking, improving ventilation or keeping children away from smoke could reduce the number of deaths and have a major impact on respiratory infections and diseases among women and children includes.

Roberto Bertollini, director of the Special Programme on Health and Environment at the WHO's Regional Office for Europe, said the Europe-specific data showed there were major inequalities in the region and that there was an "enormous space for improvement."

He also urged countries not to neglect health matters when focusing on development.

"I think we should get out of the trap of competing priorities," he said.