Priority environment and health risks

Map: Environmental burden of disease globally

Priority risks: The human toll

Environmental factors are a root cause of a significant disease burden, particularly in developing countries. An estimated 25% of death and disease globally, and nearly 35% in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, is linked to environmental hazards. Some key areas of risk include the following:

  • Unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene kill an estimated 1.7 million people annually, particularly as a result of diarrhoeal disease.
  • Indoor smoke from solid fuels kills an estimated 1.6 million people annually due to respiratory diseases.
  • Malaria kills over 1.2 million people annually, mostly African children under the age of five. Poorly designed irrigation and water systems, inadequate housing, poor waste disposal and water storage, deforestation and loss of biodiversity, all may be contributing factors to the most common vector-borne diseases including malaria, dengue and leishmaniasis.
  • Urban air pollution generated by vehicles, industries and energy production kills approximately 800 000 people annually.
  • Unintentional acute poisonings kill 355 000 people globally each year. In developing countries, where two-thirds of these deaths occur, such poisonings are associated strongly with excessive exposure to, and inappropriate use of, toxic chemicals and pesticides present in occupational and/or domestic environments.
  • Climate change impacts including more extreme weather events, changed patterns of disease and effects on agricultural production, are estimated to cause over 150 000 deaths annually.
Priority risks illustration
UNEP/Permdhal Vesm; UNEP; UNEP/Carmel Fatima

Web-accessible directories for policy relevant questions

Policymakers and stakeholders often seek answers to practical questions, including the following.

  • How are environment and health linked?
  • How many people does this hazard or risk affect?
  • What kinds of "good practice" strategies have been used successfully elsewhere?
  • What does this problem cost in economic terms; and what would alternative policies cost, or save in money and lives?
  • Where can I obtain guidance on taking action and training for professionals who want to learn more?
  • What resources exist for advocacy and participatory/community-based action?
  • What kind of data is there regarding trends and indicators in this area?
  • What international laws, conventions or strategies govern or guide action?

Links just below, and in the right-hand navigation column, take you to policy briefs and directories of web-accessible resources aimed at responding to such questions, by priority risk area. Maps portraying estimated disease burden or environmental disease burden, and its global distribution, also are provided by area of priority risk. These maps are based on World Health Organization burden of disease estimates, as reported in the World Health Report, and noted in the references of each priority risk section.

Links to programmes and portals sponsored by the World Health Organization, United Nations Environment Programme, and other United Nations agencies or affiliates, also are provided by priority risk area, as are selected links to other organizations, e.g. development agencies, academic/research and government/civil society institutions (see selection criteria).

In certain categories specific "problems" of topical relevance to developing countries have been identified for special focus, e.g. malaria in the category of vector-borne disease; agro-chemicals in the category of toxics.



Health and Environment: Managing the Linkages for Sustainable Development

Ecosystems and human well-being: Health synthesis

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment

Health/environment journals on line





Health & environment: tools for effective decision-making

Health & environment: tools for effective decision-making

The WHO-UNEP Health and Environment Linkages Initiative (HELI): Review of initial findings

Information package in environmental and occupational health

Information package in environmental and occupational health