Why clean air and water is a matter of life and death

  1. Nine million died because of pollution in 2015
  2. One in four such deaths were in India
  3. Taking lead out of petrol has boosted US coffers by more than $6 trillion

Global pollution - Wikimedia image
Factory fumes are just one part of the pollution story. Photo: Alfred Palmer/Public Domain

Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today. Diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated nine million premature deaths in 2015 —16% of all deaths worldwide — which is three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, and 15 times more than from all wars and other violence. In the most severely-affected countries, such as India, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four. And these figures are only conservative estimates, according to this report in The Lancet.

The study

Apart from the human costs, pollution wastes a fortune financially, according to a new study by 40 international scientists published by the well-known medical journal in October 2017. The research was  conducted by about 40 international scientists, using data from GBD, the Global Burden of Disease study (2016) from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. The report also used data from a recent similar study undertaken by the WHO (World Health Organization).

The nine million lives are only the green tip of the pyramid below.

The green tip, denoting the nine million deaths, only includes well established pollution–disease pairs, for which there are robust estimates of their contributions to the global burden of disease. The associations between ambient air pollution and noncommunicable disease such as heart disease and cancer are the prime example.

The yellow layer represents emerging, but still unquantified, health effects. Examples include associations between fine-particle air pollution and diabetes, pre-term birth, and diseases of the central nervous system, including autism in children and dementia in the elderly.

The red layer includes new and emerging pollutants. Examples include electronic waste, pesticides and other pollutants in our food,  including new classes of pesticides such as the neonicotinoids; chemical herbicides such as glyphosate and nano-particles; and pharmaceutical waste.

On top of this, the GBD study also estimates that disease caused by all forms of pollution was responsible for 268 million effects known as DALYs. A DALY (disability-adjusted life-year) is a summary metric of population health that combines information on mortality and disease into a single number to represent the health of a population, thus permitting comparisons of disease burden between countries, between diseases, and over time. The 268 DALYs broke down to 254 million years of life lost and 14 million years lived with disability.

The numbers above only study premature deaths. Other recent studies show links between pollution and stress hormones, altered metabolism, and risks of kidney disease.

Costs of pollution are on the rise

Pollution-related diseases cause productivity losses that reduce gross domestic product (GDP) in low-income to middle-income countries by up to 2% per year. These conditions are also responsible for 1.7% of annual health spending in high-income countries, and for up to 7% of health spending in middle-income countries that are developing rapidly but heavily polluted.

Welfare losses due to pollution are estimated to amount to US$4.6 trillion per year: that’s 6.2% of global economic output.  This number is gauged by asking people how much they would be willing to pay for a few more healthy years of life.

For every dollar the U.S. invested in air pollution control since 1970, $30 has been returned to the economy. The reason, among other things, is less need for healthcare. And another financial benefit has been lead removal from fuel. This has returned an estimated $200 billion per year to the nation’s coffers since 1980, an aggregate benefit to-date of over $6 trillion.

The future

The reports urges countries in all income brackets to do more to control pollution  – for their economies as well as for health reasons.  Investment is recommended into pollution controls, the harm pollutants do, and improved future controls . Even as we today see great strides in the higher tech and lower costs of Wind and Solar energy, and great investments in each, it is obvious we should do a lot more.

Most deaths from air pollution are in low to medium income countries, most noticeably China and India, but air pollution knows no boundaries. Polluted air from China is increasingly being detected in the U.S.  In the UK  50,000 people die every year because of pollution, as London newspaper the Evening Standard notes from the Lancet report.

To see how pollution is affecting your neighbourhood, have a look at  www.pollution.org.

What is your life worth to you?

There is this myth that finance ministers still live by, that you have to let industry pollute or else you won’t develop. It just isn’t true.’ – Richard Fuller (British Conservative) 

 

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