Environmental pollution and the global burden of disease

Br Med Bull. 2003;68:1-24. doi: 10.1093/bmb/ldg019.


Exposures to environmental pollution remain a major source of health risk throughout the world, though risks are generally higher in developing countries, where poverty, lack of investment in modern technology and weak environmental legislation combine to cause high pollution levels. Associations between environmental pollution and health outcome are, however, complex and often poorly characterized. Levels of exposure, for example, are often uncertain or unknown as a result of the lack of detailed monitoring and inevitable variations within any population group. Exposures may occur via a range of pathways and exposure processes. Individual pollutants may be implicated in a wide range of health effects, whereas few diseases are directly attributable to single pollutants. Long latency times, the effects of cumulative exposures, and multiple exposures to different pollutants which might act synergistically all create difficulties in unravelling associations between environmental pollution and health. Nevertheless, in recent years, several attempts have been made to assess the global burden of disease as a result of environmental pollution, either in terms of mortality or disability-adjusted life years (DALYs). About 8-9% of the total disease burden may be attributed to pollution, but considerably more in developing countries. Unsafe water, poor sanitation and poor hygiene are seen to be the major sources of exposure, along with indoor air pollution.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects
  • Cost of Illness*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Environmental Health
  • Environmental Pollution / adverse effects*
  • Global Health
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Life Expectancy
  • Water Pollution / adverse effects
  • Water Supply


  • Air Pollutants