The Human and Financial Cost of Pollution (2022)

Health, Sustainability

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.

(Video) The cost of air pollution

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:

(Video) The Economic Burden of Air Pollution

“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.

(Video) India loses $150 billion a year due to air pollution

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.


air pollutionMS in Sustainability Management NewsPollutionSustainability Managementtoxic chemicals


What are the costs of pollution? ›

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.

How does pollution cost money? ›

Air pollution negatively impacts the U.S. economy, costing the U.S. roughly 5 percent of its yearly gross domestic product (GDP) in damages ($790 billion in 2014). The highest costs come from early deaths, attributable to exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.

How much would it cost to fix pollution? ›

Estimates of how much money it would take to end global climate change range between $300 billion and $50 trillion over the next two decades.

What are the 3 types of pollution that humans cause? ›

The three major types of pollution are air pollution, water pollution, and land pollution. Sometimes, air pollution is visible. A person can see dark smoke pour from the exhaust pipes of large trucks or factories, for example. More often, however, air pollution is invisible.

Who bears the cost of pollution? ›

Refiners bear 23-26 percent while CPO producers, who are directly regulated, bear only 2-13 percent of the total welfare losses of the industry due to pollution control. The impacts are undoubtedly felt by farmers and plantation owners as well.

Who cost of air pollution? ›

This publication estimates that the global cost of health damages associated with exposure to air pollution is $8.1 trillion, equivalent to 6.1 percent of global GDP. People in low- and middle-income countries are most affected by mortality and morbidity from air pollution.

How can pollution harm humans? ›

Exposure to high levels of air pollution can cause a variety of adverse health outcomes. It increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer. Both short and long term exposure to air pollutants have been associated with health impacts.

How much does it cost to clean pollution? ›

Reducing marine pollution will take more than half the money needed, according to the paper. At over $90 billion, that cost includes programs to clean up ocean trash, better manage waste and improve wastewater treatment plants.

What causes pollution? ›

The Short Answer: Air pollution is caused by solid and liquid particles and certain gases that are suspended in the air. These particles and gases can come from car and truck exhaust, factories, dust, pollen, mold spores, volcanoes and wildfires. The solid and liquid particles suspended in our air are called aerosols.

How does pollution affect the environment? ›

Air pollution can directly contaminate the surface of bodies of water and soil. This can kill crops or reduce their yield. It can kill young trees and other plants. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide particles in the air, can create acid rain when they mix with water and oxygen in the atmosphere.

How can we prevent pollution? ›

On Days when High Particle Levels are Expected, Take these Extra Steps to Reduce Pollution:
  1. Reduce the number of trips you take in your car.
  2. Reduce or eliminate fireplace and wood stove use.
  3. Avoid burning leaves, trash, and other materials.
  4. Avoid using gas-powered lawn and garden equipment.
Mar 28, 2022

How can we stop pollution? ›

Reducing energy consumption helps reduce air pollution. If less gasoline, natural gas and electricity (power plants burn fossil fuels to generate electricity) are used, not only do your bills decrease but less pollutants are emitted.

Who is responsible for pollution? ›

We are responsible for pollution on earth as we have cut down the trees which is the cause of polluted air and global warming. Moreover we have set up the factories which emit their waste in air and water. Throwing of garbage, including plastic on roads also leads to pollution. Was this answer helpful?

How much does it cost to clean pollution? ›

Reducing marine pollution will take more than half the money needed, according to the paper. At over $90 billion, that cost includes programs to clean up ocean trash, better manage waste and improve wastewater treatment plants.

Why is pollution an external cost? ›

It can arise either during the production or the consumption of a good or service. Pollution is termed an externality because it imposes costs on people who are "external" to the producer and consumer of the polluting product.

What is the marginal cost of pollution? ›

Marginal cost of pollution is the additional environmental cost that results due to the production of one additional unit. Marginal abatement cost is the cost associated with eliminating a unit of pollution. As the amount of pollution released goes down, the marginal abatement cost tends to go up.


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