A recent Cornell research project concluded that pollution deserves a place alongside heart disease and cancer on the list of leading causes of death worldwide. Contamination of water, air and soil leads to 40 percent of the planet’s death toll, according to a study conducted by Prof. David Pimentel, ecology and evolutionary Biology.
“In the United States alone, 76,000 people are in the hospital each year, with 5,000 deaths, just due to pollution of air, food or water. Cancers are increasing in the U.S., and AIDS is on the rise,” Pimentel said.
The project focuses on how deteriorating environmental conditions and population growth are affecting the spread of diseases. According to the results, 62 million deaths each year are due to organic or chemical pollutants. Pimentel said that diseases like malaria, E. coli, salmonella, AIDS and tuberculosis are escalating due to the increased environment.
“Mosquitoes are much happier in polluted water. They spread a lot of serious diseases, like West Nile Virus and malaria,” Pimentel said.
Dumping sewage into waterways is one of the most common sources of pollution that ultimately leads to the spread of disease. According to the study, microbes introduced into the water can carry E. coli and salmonella.
“In India, out of 3,100 cities, how many have good sewage treatment? Eight. That means the great majority are dumping waste into streams and lakes, and people are taking water for drinking, bathing, and cooking out of those same streams and lakes. This is typical of most developing countries,” Pimentel said.
Fuel emissions and wood-burning fires release toxins into the air. According to the Pimentel, 4 billion people worldwide cook with wood fires, which produce deadly smoke that contains 200 chemicals and 14 different carcinogens. Although much of the negative environmental impact comes from developing countries, the United States creates its own sources of pollution that generate disease.
“With livestock farming becoming more centralized in the U.S., different pockets of rural areas are being exposed to new diseases that weren’t a problem in past,” said Julia O’Hern ’05 a graduate student at Texas A&M, who worked on the study as a senior undergraduate at Cornell. She focused on how large livestock farms lead to food contamination and consequent diseases.
“It was really difficult to find sources with relevant studies; there’s a lot of political and industry influence in the farm business. They don’t want you to find the health problems,” O’Hern said. Eventually, she went to the Department of Health and contacted other federal and state agencies conducting research. As one of the 11 students who took Pimentel’s Environmental Policy class in 2004, O’Hern chose a specific aspect of the class’s topic to research for the final group paper. Each year Pimentel picks a specific environmental issue to study and produces an annual paper for publication in scientific journals.
The paper that resulted from the class entitled, “Ecology of Increasing Diseases: Population Growth and Environmental Degradation” is slated to appear in the fall edition of Human Ecology, and was published this July in the online version of the science journal.
Anne Wilson, Pimentel’s assistant, has worked with him on several of the papers generated by his Environmental Policy class, and helped to edit the 2004 study before submitting it to publishers. Wilson said she was surprised by how intellectuals worldwide have come together as a community on issues such as global warming and climate control.
“Our culture and cultures globally are trying to come to grips on how we’re going to provide ourselves with clean food and water in the future. Hopefully, policy makers will now have a stronger basis for steps to conserve and protect our natural resources,” Wilson said.
Before the semester began in 2004, Pimentel said he was shocked by a World Health Organization report showing that 60 percent of the world’s population was malnourished. He decided to pursue the issue with his class that year and determine how issues of environmental concern relate to global mortality statistics. The study classified malnutrition as an environmental impact issue because it results from a lack of adequate nutrients. Rainfall, temperatures and water quality all effect food production, and are issues of land and water, subject to pollution.
“I hope the study can be used to bring greater attention to the problems of water and air pollution and the worldwide malnutrition problem, especially in developing countries. We ought to know what we’re doing to ourselves,” Pimentel said.