One year ago, The Lancet published the findings of its Commission on Pollution and Health. The report should have resulted in immediate action by governments and regulators on a worldwide basis. The Commission found that pollution was responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015, that represented 16% of all deaths worldwide. However, the proportion of those affected was not found to be equitable. The report stated that almost 92% of pollution-related deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries and, in countries at every income level, disease caused by pollution is most prevalent among minorities and the marginalised.
The question now is, has anybody acted on this alarming news? And if not, why has this issue been ignored for so long? The premature deaths are caused by industrial emissions, vehicular exhaust, and toxic chemicals, but the international health community overlooks this impact in most global health agendas and donor agencies. This is even more curious when the economic impact of avoidable pollution impacts are considered. The Commission revealed that GDP is eroded by up to 2% in countries affected by high emission levels. This accounts for up to 7% of health spending in some countries, and welfare payments of US$4·6 trillion per year, 6·2% of global economic output.
Many would assume that politicians, alarmed by news that pollution is harming their constituents, would strengthen environmental protection laws. However, as the economist Kate Raworth points out in her book ‘Doughnut Economics, there is a received wisdom that economic growth will first bring environmental deterioration, but then produce enough wealth to pay for recovery and improvement. Raworth points out that the evidence does not support this theory. Wealth in the hands of people or corporations does not limit pollution. However, she explains that societies built on equity and civil rights generally have more effective economies.
In many ways it is not surprising that the young, vulnerable and poor are the main victims of pollution. Dr Tedros Adhanom, WHO Director General called air pollution ‘the new tobacco’. A recent WHO report said that 90% of the world’s young people – 1.8 billion children – are breathing toxic air, storing up a public health time bomb for the next generation. And while richer country’s cities are improving air quality, there are hot-spots of high pollution levels that coincide with poorer sections of society. In Britain the Environment Agency reported that air pollution related deaths remain at an unacceptably high level, with 5.3% of total mortality attributable to particulate pollution alone in 2016. The BBC reported that more than 40 towns and cities in the UK are at or have exceeded air pollution limits set by the World Health Organization,
A recent (2017) FiA report found that in London:
In the USA it is the same story. Research in the journal Environmental Research found that:
In terms of social and environmental value, development that helps to mitigate pollution impacts for stakeholders that use the buildings and surrounding land have the potential to reverse these trends. Attention to indoor air quality, the exclusion of vehicles from areas frequented by children, the introduction of flora and water features, and the exclusion of energy consuming plant and equipment that rely on fossil fuels are just some of the measures that would reduce pollution risks. Measures that cause an ‘avoidance of harm’ can produce as much societal value as new jobs or the reduction of crime depending on the numbers of people affected. Measures promoting better outcomes can divert taxes or insurance premiums from health, police and social care services and into more productive initiatives. Improved health and wellbeing also results in increased workplace productivity, better family relations, and lower crime rates, all of which lead to increases in social returns on investment for society.
These social returns are magnified when the change in peoples’ lives are greater. The alleviation of pollution levels that impact on lives already hindered by poverty and inequality are more likely to result in the generation of larger amount of social value compared to more affluent people. Societies that recognise that savings on investment in environmental justice is a false economy are likely to be more successful and more competitive than those working on the outdated assumption that to generate wealth you can’t avoid environmental damage.