We have previously discussed how environmental dangers remain something of an abstraction for most people who fail to recognize that changes in air or water pollution standards results in high and quantifiable rises in death rates. Even changes in areas like shipping fuels can translate to thousands of deaths. However, since these deaths are not immediate and borne privately, the true costs of pollution are often dismissed. I have been highly critical of the environmental record of the Trump Administration for this reason in rolling back on protections in a variety of areas as well as appointing regulators with anti-environmental records. Now a new major study has found that environmental pollution kills more people every year that all of the wars. It exceeds the death tolls for smoking, hunger or natural disasters combined. It kills more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Yet, unlike these causes of death, pollution remains a policy concern that is often pushed to the side for more immediate goals like job creation. This is not to say that environmental protection would trump all other concerns but rather the real costs of such pollution are rarely discussed in real terms of premature deaths by politicians.
The study in the respected Lancet medical journal found that one out of every six premature deaths in the world in 2015 was caused by toxic exposure. That amounts to 9 million people who died prematurely due to pollution. The study also found that the cost of the resulting illnesses and deaths amounted to some $4.6 trillion in annual losses.
Worse yet, the 9 million deaths from pollution appears a highly conservative estimate since it relied on only limited data on specific measurable cases of deaths and illnesses. The actual number is likely much higher. Moreover, only half of the 5000 news chemicals introduced since 1950 have actually been fully tested for their toxicity.
Obviously, the rate of death is higher in developing countries, though we are now experiencing heavy pollution migration from Asia. In India, an astonishing one out of every four deaths are attributed to pollution. In China, there is a term for “cancer villages” in which a huge percentage of the citizens are developing cancers due to horrific environmental conditions. In China, one out of every five deaths are attributed to pollution with 1.8 million premature deaths a year.
People rarely associate changes in environmental regulation to their own risk of death or illnesses like asthma. The result is that it is difficult to defend environmental protections on a cost/benefit basis despite the fact that the costs are quite high for many environmental rollbacks. Jobs and tax cuts tend to be more quantifiable in the minds of voters even though one cannot avoid the environmental costs from increased air pollution or water pollution. Again, this does not mean that we yield to all countervailing environmental concerns but rather this study (and others that we have discussed) show that the true costs of environmental rollbacks are far higher than presumed in the public