Last week, Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health published a report on the impact of pollution on the world. The findings were shocking.
In all its forms, pollution killed 9 million people in 2015, and led to economic damages of $4.6 trillion, the researchers estimate. With these numbers in hand, the commission hopes to put the health costs of toxic air, water, and soil higher on the global agenda.
Diseases caused by pollution account for roughly one in six deaths worldwide.
In the developing world, pollution-linked illnesses and deaths impacted productivity, and reduced economic output by 1% to 2% annually.
“I was shocked, when we started running the numbers, to see what a substantial impact it had on health,” said Richard Fuller, the co-chairman of the commission and founder of Pure Earth, a nonprofit organization that cleans up toxic sites in developing nations. Fuller also said that the report was inspired by discussions he has had with finance ministers who wanted evidence that pollution was a legitimate threat to the world.
Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who was not involved in the commission’s study, said the report represents “extremely comprehensive and rigorous quantification” of pollution costs.
“In the scientific community, I don’t think there is any disagreement about the cost-benefit analysis of controlling pollution,” Dominici said. “The major barrier has been political, but not scientific.”
As the Lancet Commission’s report acknowledges that, while the scientific and public health consensus on the threat pollution poses is clear, reducing pollution means confronting “powerful vested interests” that hold sway over governments, producing public doubt about the science and paralyzing “government efforts to establish standards, impose pollution taxes, and enforce laws and regulations.”
Lancet’s study aims to galvanize the political will to take on the fight to reduce pollution. China’s President, Xi Jinping, has already started the discussion there, mentioning the environment more than the economy in his speech to the National Congress of the Communist Party.
And it’s no wonder. 20% of deaths in China can be attributed to pollution, according to the report.
In India and Bangladesh, roughly a quarter of deaths are caused by it. Deaths from pollution are lower in developed nations, with only 6% of deaths in the U.S. attributable to pollution. But overall, pollution killed more people in 2015 than obesity, alcohol, car accidents, and malnutrition combined, and undoubtedly that 9 million mark will be surpassed this year.
“The costs of pollution-related disease are often overlooked and undercounted,” the report says. Medical conditions such as heart or lung disease or cancer can take years to manifest, and a spread broadly across populations, with children and the poor being disproportionately effected.
The report also argues that countries can separate the reduction of pollution from economic growth, citing the U.S. as an example. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. Since then, GDP, adjusted for inflation, has increased by 250%. Over the same period, concentrations of common air pollutants like lead and sulfur dioxide have dropped by 70% in the U.S.
9 million deaths and $4.6 trillion lost may underestimate the full cost of pollution. As the number is derived from death rates, it does not include the price of medical expenditures or lost productivity from those who become sick but not killed by pollution-related illnesses. It also doesn’t measure some forms of pollution that are also likely to impact human health, such as soil tainted with industrial toxins or heavy metals, as the data available to calculate the impact such pollutants have on health are insufficient.
While the negative impact of pollution is widespread, the financial benefits of not reducing pollution are concentrated among a small group of powerful industries that don’t bear the costs of their business activities. However, one such industry, the oil industry, is beginning to make significant investments in green energy in an effort to diversify their businesses in response to growing pressure to reduce pollution.
As the number of deaths grow in coming years, and the financial impact increases, the calls to reduce pollution will likely get louder.