From Elections to Pollution – Data is Key

One of the most interesting outcomes of this U.S. election is that it has reminded us that data is king.

Nate Silver from the New York Time’s FiveThirtyEight blog has become a celebrity of sorts for coming up with data that predicted the election results almost to a T.  The art and science of collecting, interpreting and presenting data is vital because it can give us a clearer picture of everything, from elections to global issues. Remember what Al Gore did for global warming in the film “An Inconvenient Truth?”  I’d like to think that in a similar way, our recently-released 2012 World’s Worst Pollution Problems report will help push the increasing support for pollution cleanup over the edge because for the first time, we have data about pollution’s terrible toll worldwide.

For years, the true scope of pollution’s impact has been as murky as the contaminated landscape itself. Measuring and collecting data on pollution is complicated because there are so many types of toxins and sources involved, causing a wide range of diseases that affect communities in multiple ways.

In 2000, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted the Disability Adjusted Life Year or DALY as a measure of disease burden. DALY is expressed as the number of life years lost not only from early death but also from disability and ill health. Chronic headaches, for example, are given a lower value in the DALY metric than more severe health outcomes such as blindness or cancer.

Using this method, WHO began to calculate the health toll of diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV to show what those diseases were doing to the global community.  Today, the fight against those diseases is going strong partly because we know what the stakes are. We have the data.

In last year’s report we began to calculate the toll of pollution in select contaminated sites using data from the Toxic Sites Identification Program - our ongoing  survey of the world’s worst polluted hotspots. This year, we built on that effort to calculate, for the first time, the impact of pollution on health in 49 countries. As a result, we can now see that industrial pollution causes as much damage and suffering as some of the world’s most dangerous diseases (see a comparison of DALY numbers). With data in hand, it has become increasing clear that we have to fight toxic pollution as hard as we fight TB, malaria and HIV.

Without data, pollution is invisible. With data, we can see what’s coming and take action.

Read a selection of coverage about the 2012 World’s Worst Pollution Problems report here in The Guardian, Huffington Post, The Atlantic, Toronto Star, and the leading medical journal The Lancet.

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