A new study conducted by Lancet Commission on pollution and health finds the truth that no one shilling for the fossil fuel industry wants us to know — pollution kills people, lots and lots of them — every year. “Going into this, my colleagues and I knew that pollution killed a lot of people. But we certainly did not have any idea of the total magnitude of the problem,” said Philip Landrigan, dean of global health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and co-chair of the commission that created the report. “I think all of us were really surprised when we saw this.”
The Executive Summary
Here’s the Executive Summary of the report:
“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.”
The Earth As Communal Toilet
The upshot of the report is that humanity needs to stop using the earth as a communal toilet. That conclusion should be right up at the top of the list of inalienable truths by which human beings guide themselves, but sadly it is not presently even on it. The culture of greed that underlies what passes for our everyday commerce has managed somehow to convince us that creating massive amounts of pollution is good for us.
To paraphrase Engine Charlie Wilson, what’s good for business is good for the world. The result is a series of what economists call “untaxed externalities,” which is another way of saying that business gets to keep all its profits while sticking the people with the people for cleaning up after them.
Data From 130 Countries
The Lancet Commission study took two years and looked at data from 130 countries. Its findings indicate that pollution kills about 9 million people a year. That’s about 16% of all deaths worldwide. The study found that poor air quality is the significant pollution related killer. Dirty air is said to be responsible for 6.5 million deaths a year. That includes outside air contaminated with mercury, arsenic and other harmful elements and inside air contaminated with the combustion byproducts from burning organic compounds like wood and dung for cooking and for light. Both factors contribute strongly to death from heart disease, stroke, long cancer and other respiratory problems.
Water pollution, which includes everything from unsafe sanitation to contaminated drinking water, accounted for an additional 1.8 million annual deaths from gastrointestinal diseases and other infections, researchers found. India and China experienced the highest number of pollution related deaths — 2.5 million and 1.8 million respectively — with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kenya close behind.
Cleaning Up Pollution Is Good For The Economy
If nations need an economic incentive to act, the study suggests cleaning up pollution can boost economic input. “Until now, people haven’t recognized what an incredible hit pollution makes on the economy of a country,” Philip Landrigan says. “Pollution control can stimulate the economy because it reduces death and disease.” Pollution eats up about 1.3% of the gross domestic product of low income countries and about 0.5% in higher income nations. That’s without figuring in the additional health care costs of treating people for pollution related illnesses.
“When you’re looking at developing countries, you really have to address this challenge if you want to move people out of poverty and into the middle class,” says Gina McCarthy, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator who was not involved in the study but had studied its conclusions. “It is holding people back.”
Climate Change Will Make Things Worse
Global warming only makes the problem worse. “Climate change is going to exacerbate the very problems that are identified in this article. There will be more contagious and infectious diseases. There will be more lives lost, more injuries if we don’t identify a path that gets us out of the hole that we’re in,” McCarthy says. “What people don’t realize is the instability that results from poverty, the instability that results from migration as a result of climate change.”
Instability is a polite euphemism for war, as people migrating from areas hardest hit by famine or lack of clean water move to other parts of the world in search of those necessities. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that animosity toward foreigners is one of the key components to the rise of authoritarian governments in Europe and the US.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Gina McCarthy sahys the Lancet study is based on the most complete epidemiological data available. “These are the best numbers that we have available to us. And even if they’re off by a factor of 10, you’re still talking about huge, huge impacts. But they’re not off by a factor of 10. It’s very clear if you go to other countries and it’s clear if you go to some of our own communities that they are being held back because of the impact of pollution on their kids and their elderly. And we have to stop thinking that because we can’t see the pollution and it’s not as visible that it’s not there.”
Oddly enough, at a time when the putative president of the United States is pushing for more jobs in the coal industry, coal miners are one group of workers who seem to be more susceptible to work related air pollution than most. From bladder cancer in dye workers to the lung disease pneumoconiosis in coal miners, researchers found that occupational exposure to various carcinogens and toxins was linked to about 800,000 deaths annually.
Philip Landrigan dismisses as “an old wive’s tale” the nostrum that developing countries must suffer an onslaught of pollution and the diseases it causes in order to enjoy the blessings of economic growth. Rather he suggests that reducing pollution improves the health of a nation’s citizens which leads to economic rewards not only in increased productivity but in reduced health care costs.
China Is A Microcosm For The World
China is perhaps the clearest example of this in modern times. Thirty years ago, it embarked on a new economic strategy that would see it become the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial and consumer goods. That expansion was made possible by electricity generated at hundreds of newly constructed coal fired facilities. China’s economy boomed, but its skies were soon filled with lethal pollutants.
The Chinese experience has compressed the whole history of economic progress into a few decades. Like the frog that jumps out of the kettle when the water temperature rises too rapidly, China saw what pollution was doing to its citizens and took drastic action. It is now one of the global leaders of the transition to zero emissions renewable energy. In the so-called developed world, the temperature in the cauldron has been rising much more slowly, allowing governments and people to believe that there was nothing to worry about.
Landrigan is optimistic that developed nations will help developing nations to bridge the gap between poverty and prosperity without turning their little corner of the world into and open sewer. “It doesn’t have to [get worse]. It’s not an inevitable outcome,” he says of the annual death toll. “Pollution control is a winnable battle.”
Slip Slidin’ Away
Perhaps. But before declaring victory, we should bear in mind the words of Paul Simon: “We work in our jobs. Collect out pay. Believe we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re slip slidin’ away.” The Lancet report is similar to the studies in the 50s that showed a link between smoking and lung cancer. It took another 40 years before the tide turned against the tobacco companies, who still continue to sell billions of cigarettes a year. The message is the same. The difference is that now the world doesn’t have 40 years before its goose is cooked, metaphorically speaking.
Source: The Washington Post
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