How much global ill health is attributable to environmental factors?

Epidemiology. 1999 Sep;10(5):573-84.


Over the years, estimates have been made of the portions of human mortality and morbidity that can be attributed to environmental factors. Frustratingly, however, even for a single category of disease such as cancer, these estimates have often varied widely. Here we attempt to explain why such efforts have come to such different results in the past and to provide guidance for doing such estimates more consistently in the future to avoid the most important pitfalls. We do so by carefully defining what we mean by the terms "environmental," "ill health," and "attributable." Finally, based on these recommendations, we attempt our own estimate, appropriately qualified according to the many remaining uncertainties. Our estimate is that 25-33% of the global burden of disease can be attributed to environmental risk factors. Children under 5 years of age seem to bear the largest environmental burden, and the portion of disease due to environmental risks seems to decrease with economic development. A summary of these estimates first appeared in the 1997 report, "Health and Environment in Sustainable Development," which was the World Health Organization's contribution to the 5-year anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit. A full explanation of how these estimates were made is first presented here. We end with a call for a program of "strategic epidemiology," which would be designed to fill important gaps in the understanding of major environmental health risks in important population groups worldwide.

MeSH terms

  • Causality
  • Disease / etiology*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Exposure / statistics & numerical data
  • Global Health*
  • Humans
  • Public Health / statistics & numerical data*
  • Terminology as Topic