The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health has released a “landmark study” on health and economic effects of pollution worldwide. You can read it after going through a free but somewhat annoying registration process. There is also a pretty good summary in this Guardian article.
I find the results disturbing. Among them are that pollution causes an estimated 9 million premature deaths worldwide each year, with over 90% in low-income and middle-income countries. The Guardian article has a good Infographic showing that this is significantly more than deaths caused by other major causes like smoking, AIDS, and road deaths. (Although, you could think of smoking as a form of intentional pollution, and I believe tobacco countries are still up to their old immoral marketing tricks in developing countries. I also see a link between pollution and road deaths, with land use patterns and lifestyles centered around motor vehicles being the root cause of both, again with immoral practices by the auto, fossil fuel, and construction industries playing a role.) Other statistics are that pollution reduces GDP in low- and middle-income countries by 2% per year and global economic output by around 6% per year. (I don’t quite get how those last two statistics go together – even though the health impacts are primarily in lower-income countries, that somehow affects the economies of higher-income countries disproportionately? I guess maybe because people in higher-income countries spend money on medical care to partially offset the effects of pollution, while people in the poorer countries just die? But don’t we add medical spending to GDP, even though we should consider some of it a cost to society rather than a benefit?) One implication here is that the idea of accepting pollution for a period of time while your country develops may not be a very good strategy, even thinking in hard-nosed economic terms and neglecting the moral dimensions of allowing your people to suffer in exchange for the supposed longer-term gain.
They make a few more links I find interesting (not in a fun way). One is that we don’t really know how much of health care spending is offsetting the effects of pollution, because there is a lot we don’t know about links between pollution and health. And this is not just heart attacks, cancer, and asthma we are talking about, there are disturbing concerns about impacts on the fertility and intelligence of our species from both the small number of everyday chemicals we have good information on and the enormous and growing number we don’t. Finally, there are the somewhat obvious links between fossil fuel pollution and climate change.
Here is where I should probably draw some link to the Trump administration’s immoral policies to actually increase pollution. But it’s so obvious I’m not sure it even needs to be said. He is clearly one of the evil lizard people who eats babies and puppies and is trying to kill us all off as quickly as possible.
A 2013 study estimated the number of annual premature deaths due to air pollution in the U.S. at about 200,000. That’s kind of a shocking number considering it is more than deaths from other preventable causes like car accidents and suicides. An interesting (not in a good way) finding is that road transportation causes more deaths (~53,000/yr) from air pollution than from crashes. On the other hand, it means you can kill two birds with one stone when you institute policies and technologies that reduce vehicle emissions, driving, or both. Of course, a shift to electric cars just shifts the emissions to power plants in the short term, but that means many fewer centralized sources of emissions, which might be easier to deal with. A shift to more muscle-powered transportation in our cities is a huge win in terms of health (less violent death and injuries, less death from dirty air, more exercise in all that clean fresh air, probably better mental health), and a win in terms of land use and vibrancy and getting to know one another in our cities.
Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005
Combustion emissions adversely impact air quality and human health. A multiscale air quality model is applied to assess the health impacts of major emissions sectors in United States. Emissions are classified according to six different sources: electric power generation, industry, commercial and residential sources, road transportation, marine transportation and rail transportation. Epidemiological evidence is used to relate long-term population exposure to sector-induced changes in the concentrations of PM2.5 and ozone to incidences of premature death. Total combustion emissions in the U.S. account for about 200,000 (90% CI: 90,000–362,000) premature deaths per year in the U.S. due to changes in PM2.5 concentrations, and about 10,000 (90% CI: −1000 to 21,000) deaths due to changes in ozone concentrations. The largest contributors for both pollutant-related mortalities are road transportation, causing ∼53,000 (90% CI: 24,000–95,000) PM2.5-related deaths and ∼5000 (90% CI: −900 to 11,000) ozone-related early deaths per year, and power generation, causing ∼52,000 (90% CI: 23,000–94,000) PM2.5-related and ∼2000 (90% CI: −300 to 4000) ozone-related premature mortalities per year. Industrial emissions contribute to ∼41,000 (90% CI: 18,000–74,000) early deaths from PM2.5 and ∼2000 (90% CI: 0–4000) early deaths from ozone. The results are indicative of the extent to which policy measures could be undertaken in order to mitigate the impact of specific emissions from different sectors — in particular black carbon emissions from road transportation and sulfur dioxide emissions from power generation.
Here is a long article citing evidence that air pollution is at least correlated, and quite possibly a contributing factor, to diabetes. The website is called diabetesandenvironment.org, so I don’t know if it is an unbiased source of scientific information. The scientific studies it cites are certainly real.
These authors suggest that oxidative stress, which involves an excess of free radicals, might be one mechanism whereby air pollutants could influence the development of type 1 diabetes. Ozone and sulfate can have oxidative effects. Particulate matter carries contaminants that can trigger the production of free radicals as well as immune system cells called cytokines (involved in inflammation), and may affect organs that are sensitive to oxidative stress (MohanKumar et al. 2008). Beta cells are highly sensitive to oxidative stress, and free radicals are likely to be involved in beta cell destruction in type 1 diabetes (Lenzen 2008)…
The children of mothers exposed to higher levels of air pollution while pregnant have a higher risk of later developing type 1 diabetes. This finding comes from the relatively unpolluted area of southern Sweden, and was found for both ozone and nitrogen oxides (NOx) (Malmqvist et al. 2015)…
A number of long-term studies have found that exposure to traffic-related air pollution is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in adults. For example, a study of African-American women from Los Angeles found that those who had higher exposure to traffic-related air pollutants (PM2.5 and nitrogen oxides) were more likely to develop diabetes (as well as high blood pressure) (Coogan et al. 2012). Adults in Denmark had an increased risk of diabetes when exposed to higher levels of the traffic-related air pollutant nitrogen dioxide (NO2)– especially those who had a healthy lifestyle, were physically active, and did not smoke– factors that should be protective against type 2 diabetes (Andersen et al. 2012). A study of adult women in West Germany found that women exposed to higher levels of traffic-related air pollution (NO2 and PM) developed type 2 diabetes at a higher rate. This study followed the participants over a 16 year period (at the beginning, none had diabetes) (Krämer et al. 2010). A long-term study from Ontario, Canada, found that exposure to PM2.5 was associated with the development of diabetes in adults (Chen et al. 2013). From Switzerland, a 10 year long study found that levels of PM10 and NO 2were associated with diabetes development in adults, at levels of pollution below air quality standards (Eze et al. 2014).
So does it make sense that we are obsessing over chemicals like trace agricultural pesticide residues in food and “microconstituents” in drinking water, rather than air pollution, which is 100% proven to be extremely harmful? I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be concerned about all of the above, but in a world of finite resources and time we should calibrate our amount of concern and action to the biggest, most proven risks, while continuing to learn more about the others. The internal combustion engine is killing us and our children, slowly through the air not to mention through sudden, violent death on the ground.
A few more interesting air pollution notes:
- China may have reached peak coal, with its consumption actually falling last year. World energy consumption has been known to fall during recessions, but this is supposedly the first time it has fallen during an economic expansion. The economics of renewables seem to be playing a significant role.
- Air pollution kills more people worldwide than tobacco.
- A Chinese documentary about air pollution called “Under the Dome” was seen by 300 million people in less than a week before it was censored in China. The film maker was partly inspired by a rare tumor her daughter developed in the womb that she links back to air pollution.
- Confusingly, Under the Dome was also the title of a recent Stephen King novel and TV series. In Stephen King’s 1982 novel The Running Man, which he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, children are dying right and left of emphysema and cancer caused by air pollution. The government is covering it up and keeping people distracted and entertained with reality TV shows.
This just in from the American Heart Association (actually the article is from 2010 but I don’t think the news has gotten any better) – particulate air pollution, which comes from internal combustion engines and fossil-fueled power plants, is pretty bad for us:
There are several ways by which PM2.5 could affect the cardiovascular system; however, one leading explanation suggests that several components of PM2.5, once inhaled, can cause inflammation and irritate nerves in the lungs. These responses can start a cascade of changes that adversely affect the rest of the body, Brook said.
“It’s possible that certain very small particles, or chemicals that travel with them, may reach the circulation and cause direct harm,” Brook said. “The lung nerve-fiber irritation can also disrupt the balance of the nervous system throughout the body. These responses can increase blood clotting and thrombosis, impair vascular function and blood flow, elevate blood pressure, and disrupt proper cardiac electrical activity which may ultimately provoke heart attacks, strokes, or even death.
“These studies also indicate that there is no ‘safe’ level of PM2.5 exposure,”
Also, and this really is breaking news, in the Nurses’ Health Study:
- In 523 cases of sudden cardiac death, living within 50 meters (164 feet) of a major road increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 38 percent, compared to living at least 500 meters (.3 miles) away.
- Each 100 meters (328 feet) closer to roadways was associated with a 6 percent increased risk for sudden cardiac death.
- In the 1,159 cases of fatal coronary heart disease, risk increased 24 percent.
The public’s exposure to major roadways is comparable to major sudden cardiac death risk factors, researchers said.
from Alternet, a new theory on possible environmental causes of autism:
The children exposed to two substances were up to twice as likley as others to develop autism spectrum disorders. The first is styrene, which is used in plastics, paints and is also a product of gasoline combustion in automobiles. The second, chromium, is produced during the processes used in steel manufacturing and other industries.
This article (in the descriptively name journal Energy) describes how California could move to an all-renewable energy future, then tries to put an economic value on that. It is always the link between air pollution and health that surprises me. Why don’t people get more upset that power plants and vehicle exhaust are literally taking years off all our lives when there are other alternatives out there?
This study presents a roadmap for converting California’s all-purpose (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) energy infrastructure to one derived entirely from wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) generating electricity and electrolytic hydrogen. California’s available WWS resources are first evaluated. A mix of WWS generators is then proposed to match projected 2050 electric power demand after all sectors have been electrified. The plan contemplates all new energy from WWS by 2020, 80–85% of existing energy converted by 2030, and 100% by 2050. Electrification plus modest efficiency measures may reduce California’s end-use power demand ∼44% and stabilize energy prices since WWS fuel costs are zero. Several methods discussed should help generation to match demand. A complete conversion in California by 2050 is estimated to create ∼220,000 more 40-year jobs than lost, eliminate ∼12,500 (3800–23,200) state air-pollution premature mortalities/yr, avoid $103 (31–232) billion/yr in health costs, representing 4.9 (1.5–11.2)% of California’s 2012 gross domestic product, and reduce California’s 2050 global climate cost contribution by $48 billion/yr. The California air-pollution health plus global climate cost benefits from eliminating California emissions could equal the $1.1 trillion installation cost of 603 GW of new power needed for a 100% all-purpose WWS system within ∼7 (4–14) years.