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Pollution Has a High Price

Key emitters of carbon dioxide, such as electricity-generating plants, chemical manufacturing facilities, mining operations, deforestation, and petroleum-powered vehicles, are also major sources of pollution.

Pollution costs and kills.

That is the concise conclusion of The Lancet Commission on pollution and health. The Lancet is one of the world’s oldest and best-known medical journals.

In a 51-page study released October 19th in which it estimated diseases caused by pollution were responsible for 9 million premature deaths in 2015, the commission also stated the annual cost of pollution-related death, sickness and welfare is US $4.6 trillion.

“Pollution endangers the stability of the Earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies,” warned the commission.

Pollution was to blame for 16% of all deaths worldwide in 2015, three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence.

The poor, minorities, and marginalized populations are most vulnerable to pollution says the report.

“In the most severely affected countries, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four,” write the report’s authors, adding that 92% of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries. 

The annual welfare costs of pollution amount to 6.2% of global economic output said the commission.

“The costs attributed to pollution-related disease will probably increase as additional associations between pollution and disease are identified,” it added.

The study said pollution has been neglected, especially in low- and middle-income countries, and the health effects of pollution are under-estimated in calculations of the global burden of disease.

Air pollution “insufficiently appreciated”

In an earlier commentary published in The Lancet, the study’s lead author Philip Landrigan– an American epidemiologist and pediatrician and one of the world's leading advocates of children's health – wrote that “air pollution is a major,insufficiently appreciated cause of non-communicabledisease.”

Landrigan’s tally of air pollution’s damaging effects is frightening – it was responsiblein 2015 for 19% of all cardiovascular deaths worldwide, 24% of ischemic heart disease deaths, 21% of stroke deaths, and 23% of lung cancer deaths.

“Additionally, ambient air pollution appears to be an important although not yet quantified risk factor for neurodevelopmental disorders in children and neurodegenerative diseases in adults,” adds Landrigan, a professor in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

“Nearly 90% of the population living in cities worldwide is breathing air that fails to meet WHO air quality guideline limits,” states a commentarythat accompanies The Lancet Commission study.

Canada is not immune to the devastating effects of air pollution. A June 2017 reportfrom the International Institute for Sustainable Development estimated that smog in Canada was responsible for 7,712 premature deaths in 2015 and cost the economy $36 billion.

Pollution linked to climate change

Pollution endangers planetary health, destroys ecosystems, and is intimately linked to global climate change, The Lancet Commission says.

“Fuel combustion – fossil fuel combustion in high-income and middle-income countries and burning of biomass in low-income countries – accounts for 85% of airborne particulate pollution and for almost all pollution by oxides of sulphur and nitrogen,” says the study.

It emphasizes that fuel combustion is also a major source of the greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants that drive climate change, pointing out that coal is the most polluting fossil fuel and a significant contributor to climate change.

“Key emitters of carbon dioxide, such as electricity-generating plants, chemical manufacturing facilities, mining operations, deforestation, and petroleum-powered vehicles, are also major sources of pollution.”

The report also warns of the growing hazard of pollution from the more than 140,000 new chemicals and pesticides that have been synthesized since 1950.

Of these materials, the 5,000 that are produced in greatest volume have become widely dispersed in the environment and are responsible for nearly universal human exposure.

A September 2013 report entitled The Poisoned Poor: Toxic Chemicals Exposures in Low- and Middle-Income Countriesestimated that 200 million people suffered health effects from more 3,000 toxic waste sites.

Fewer than half of these high-production volume chemicals have undergone any testing for safety or toxicity, and rigorous pre-market evaluation of new chemicals has become mandatory in only the past decade and in only a few high-income countries.

“The result is that chemicals and pesticides whose effects on human health and the environment were never examined have repeatedly been responsible for episodes of disease, death, and environmental degradation,” says the commission, citing lead, asbestos, DDT, PCB, and chlorofluorocarbons.

It is becoming evident that new emerging chemical pollutants like developmental neurotoxicants, endocrine disruptors, chemical herbicides, novel insecticides, pharmaceutical wastes, and nanomaterials also have the capacity to harm human health and the environment.

There is good news

The report found that pollutionmitigation and prevention can yield large net gains both for human health and the economy.

“In the USA, an estimated US$30 in benefits has been returned to the economy for every dollar invested in air pollution control since 1970, which is an aggregate benefit of $1.5 trillion against an investment of $65 billion. Similarly, the removal of lead from gasoline has returned an estimated $200 billion to the US economy each year since 1980, an aggregate benefit to date of over $6 trillion through the increased cognitive function and enhanced economic productivity of generations of children exposed since birth to only low amounts of lead.”

“We always hear ‘we can’t afford to clean up pollution’ – I say we can’t afford not to clean it up,” said Landrigan.

Six recommendations

TheLancet Commission makes six recommendationsto reach the goals of raising global awareness of pollution, ending neglect of pollution-related disease, and mobilizing the resources and the political will needed to effectively confront pollution:

1.    Make pollution prevention a high priority nationally and internationally and integrate it into country and city planning processes.

2.    Mobilize, increase, and focus the funding and the international technical support dedicated to pollution control.

3.    Establish systems to monitor pollution and its effects on health.

4.    Build multi-sectoral partnerships for pollution control.

5.    Integrate pollution mitigation into planning processes for non-communicable diseases.

6.    Research pollution and pollution control. Research is needed to understand and control pollution and to drive change in pollution policy.

The Lancethas partnered with the Global Alliance on Health and Pollutionand will revisit the data on health and pollution and publish regular updates.

Now that we know pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today, we all have a responsibility to give this problem the attention it deserves and find immediate ways to eliminate pollution.

Humans are Mother Nature’s most intelligent and inventive children.

“It’s now up to us to grow up and control ourselves, recognize that we set the terms under which the rest of life on Earth thrives,” writes David Biello in his book The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age.

We humans cannot live without Mother Earth, but she can live without us. Its way past time that we learned how to prevent pollution and followed through on that knowledge.

The cost is simply too high to do otherwise.

Michael Jessen is an eco-writer and sustainability consultant living at Longbeach near Balfour, BC. His business Zero Waste Solutions helps individuals, businesses and communities make sustainable choices in day-to-day management and utilization of resources. Learn more at www.zerowaste.caor www.michaeljessen.ca. Michael can be reached by email at zerowaste@shaw.ca