The Human and Financial Cost of Pollution

by |October 23, 2017
Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen on the Huffington Post.

Last week, the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health issued its report on the global impact of environmental pollution. The results are straightforward:

“In 2015, diseases caused by air, water and soil pollution were responsible for 9 million premature deaths, that is 16% of all global death. Exposures to contaminated air, water and soil kill more people than smoking, hunger, natural disasters, war, AIDS, or malaria.”

Nearly all of these deaths (92%) took place in poorer nations. In wealthier nations that have worked to reduce pollution, the benefits of pollution control far outweigh the costs. According to this Commission, the global financial costs of pollution are huge, totaling “$4.6 trillion per year—6.2% of global economic output”. The study reported that in the United States, air pollution control pays off at a rate of 30-1. Every dollar invested in air pollution control generates thirty dollars of benefits. Since 1970 the U.S. has invested about $65 billion in air pollution control and received about $1.5 trillion in benefits.

I strongly believe that sustainability management―or managing organizations to ensure they minimize their environmental impact―will come to be synonymous with competent management. One problem with a macro-analysis such as Lancet’s is that many of the costs of pollution control are incurred by specific firms and localities while the benefits are provided to an entire society. That is what has given rise to the myth that we must trade off economic growth against environmental protection. People learn through lore and stories, and the drama of a factory shut down is more memorable than anyone’s cost-benefit data. Nevertheless, I believe that on a more crowded planet, with instant and inexpensive global communication, a company that engages in wanton acts of environmental destruction will not survive long in the market place. Moreover, formerly free and low-cost resources, such as water, minerals and even energy are becoming significant cost factors in many organizations. Companies that learn to control these costs can outcompete those that ignore the cost impacts of pollution and wasted resources.

The notion that poisoning the planet is bad for people and profits is not shared universally. While America has been a leader in the half-century-long effort to clean up our environment, the anti-regulatory zealots now running this country’s executive branch are doing their best to eliminate that progress. The Lancet study reports that:

“There are more than 140,000 new chemicals since 1950—5,000 of these materials are produced in great volume. Fewer than half of these high-production-volume chemicals have been fully tested for safety.”

Despite these findings, the U.S. EPA under President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been moving to weaken already inadequate U.S. chemical regulations. In a trend that we are starting to see throughout the federal government, former industry lobbyists are being given key positions in regulatory agencies. In this case, Dr. Nancy B. Beck, formerly of the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade group, has been serving as a principal deputy to Pruitt on the regulation of toxic chemicals. Their strategy has not been to end regulation, since that would be illegal, but to make it more difficult to track the impact of regulatory controls. This is done in the interest of reducing “regulatory burden” on the chemical industry. Perhaps worse than this effort to turn toxic chemical regulation over to the chemical industry is EPA’s unwillingness to defend their approach in any media the administration does not control. In Eric Lipton’s New York Times story on this issue last weekend, he reported that:

“The E.P.A. and Dr. Beck declined repeated requests to comment that included detailed lists of questions. “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for the E.P.A., said in an email. “The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.” Before joining the E.P.A., Ms. Bowman was a spokeswoman for the American Chemistry Council.”

There has been a long-standing debate on the risks of many chemicals and for many years the chemical industry has dominated the toxic substance regulatory process through both Republican and Democratic administrations. The precautionary principle, used to test all drugs before they are released to market, is not used when we introduce new chemicals. Perhaps that is because we do not ingest these chemicals deliberately and directly into our bodies. But we do come into direct contact with them in our air, food and water. Sadly, we are all like those canaries that were once lowered into the coal mine to see if the air was safe for miners to breathe. If the canary came back dead, we didn’t send the miners down; if the canary came back alive, all was well and the miners could go to work. We are all the test dummies for the chemical industry and everyone else that releases toxics into our environment. In the interest of pursuing jobs, jobs, jobs―mostly these days for robots, robots, robots―we are willing to unleash new chemicals on the world and assume they are safe. Even when chemicals are proven harmful or are suspected to be dangerous, the chemical industry can’t be troubled with providing the government with the data needed to assess the danger.

Many of the new chemicals introduced by industry have brought great benefits and have even transformed the way we live. The materials used in electronics, vehicles, construction, appliances, and even food have benefited from this research and development. But the idea that new materials and substances be developed and used without assessing potential dangers is idiotic. The harm caused by a new chemical may be far greater than the benefit. Asbestos is probably the prime example of this. It was very good at preventing the spread of fire, but turned out to be very bad for the human respiratory system. When harm is discovered, all the businesses and people using the substance must stop using it and if possible repair the damage caused by the chemical. This process is very expensive and is a cost that more careful regulation could avoid.

If we are to develop an economy that is productive enough to lift the entire world from poverty and maintain that economy over the long term, we need to develop and implement many new technologies. In a world even more dominated by human technology than today’s world, the preservation of our biosphere becomes critical to our long-term well-being. We need to ensure that our air, water and soil is free of poisons. To do that we need to take pollution control more seriously than we do today. Many industries have found that environmental regulation is compatible with long term production and profits. In the U.S. our GDP continues to grow even as conventional pollutants, those that we regulate, are reduced. We do not need to deregulate but instead become more effective and competent regulators. We need to test chemicals quickly, we need to process, analyze and police dangerous substances and allow industry to bring safe substances to market as quickly as possible. This means we need more money and people involved in the regulatory process, not less.

The Trump Administration, some business people, and some government officials in the developing world do not think that industry should be bothered with rules and regulations. If they must be regulated, let’s be sure the “burden” imposed is not too great. But when pollution is legitimized, the cost burden is not eliminated, it just shifts to the individuals who get sick, or the communities who must clean up the mess made by industry. The mess can be avoided with competent management and more effective regulation.


One thought on “The Human and Financial Cost of Pollution

  1. John says:

    It’s hard to remember, but environmental regulations weren’t always an invitation to angry debate and Congressional gridlock. The Clean Air Act of 1970 was signed into law by President Richard Nixon and gave the Environmental Protection Agency (created under the same administration) the authority to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants from fixed and mobile sources. Two decades later President George H.W. Bush spearheaded the expansion of the Clean Air Act, giving the EPA authority to tackle ozone depletion and establishing a market-based approach to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, a contributor to acid rain.

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