Pollution in all its forms killed 9 million people in 2015 and, by one measure, led to economic damage of $4.6 trillion, according to a new estimate by researchers who hope to put the health costs of toxic air, water and soil higher on the global agenda.
In less-developed nations, pollution-linked illness and death drag down productivity, reducing economic output by 1 percent to 2 percent annually, according to the tally by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, published Thursday by the U.K. medical journal. The report is intended to illuminate the hidden health and economic consequences of harmful substances introduced into the environment by human activity.
Diseases caused by pollution account for about one in six deaths worldwide. “I was shocked, when we started running the numbers, to see what a substantial impact it had on health,” said Richard Fuller, co-chairman of the commission and founder of Pure Earth, a nonprofit that cleans up toxic sites in developing countries. Fuller said the report was inspired by conversations he had with finance ministers who wanted evidence that pollution was a real problem.
The report represents an “extremely comprehensive and rigorous quantification” of pollution costs, said Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“In the scientific community, I don’t think there is any disagreement about the cost-benefit analysis of controlling pollution,” Dominici said. Reducing air pollution from vehicles and power plants, for example, would simultaneously improve human health and reduce planet-warming carbon emissions, she said. “The major barrier has been political, but not scientific.”
While the scientific and public health consensus on the harms of pollution may be clear, reducing it means confronting “powerful vested interests” that often hold sway over governments, sow doubt about science and “paralyze governmental efforts to establish standards, impose pollution taxes, and enforce laws and regulations,” the Lancet commission’s report notes.
The study aims to bolster the political will to take on such fights. That’s already happening in some places: Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned the environment more than the economy in his speech this week to the National Congress of the Communist Party, a major gathering of party leaders that happens every five years. Almost 20 percent of deaths in China are attributable to pollution, according to the Lancet commission report. In India and Bangladesh, about a quarter of fatalities are tied to it. In the U.S., meanwhile, less than 6 percent of deaths are attributable to pollution.