For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, the environment, and the planet have been neglected both by Governments and the international development agenda. Yet, pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths.
The Lancet Commission on pollution and health addresses the full health and economic costs of air, water, and soil pollution. Through analyses of existing and emerging data, the Commission reveals pollution’s severe and underreported contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. It uncovers the economic costs of pollution to low-income and middle-income countries. The Commission will inform key decision makers around the world about the burden that pollution places on health and economic development, and about available cost-effective pollution control solutions and strategies.
In less developed nations, pollution-linked illness and death drags down productivity, reducing economic output by 1 percent to 2 percent annually.
The cost of inaction is high, while solutions yield enormous economic gains. Welfare losses due to pollution are estimated at $4.6 trillion per year —6.2 percent of global economic output. In the United States, investment in pollution control has returned $200 billion each year since 1980 ($6 trillion total). The claim that pollution control stifles economic growth and that poor countries
must pollute to grow is false.
The 16% of all deaths worldwide—three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. In the most severely affected countries, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four.
“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.”
Air pollution causes 6.5 million of 9 million annual deaths. That includes smog from power plants, factories, and vehicles, as well as household emissions from dirty indoor stoves used in poorer countries. Contaminated water, soil, and occupational exposures to dangerous chemicals contribute significantly to the death toll as well.
Reducing environmental toxins can also yield economic benefits in ways that aren’t as apparent as more obvious health benefits. For example, burning leaded gas leaves the pollutant in the air. When children inhale lead-polluted air, they can suffer from cognitive impairment.
The levels of lead in children’s blood plummeted after regulators began phasing it out of fuel in the 1970s. By the late 1990s, the average IQ of preschoolers had risen by an estimated 2 to 5 points, according to one analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. That improved cognitive power would lead to greater productivity over their lifetimes, accruing economic benefits calculated at more than $110 billion a year.