Many people think of science as precise, as exact. After all, those scientists are using computers and satellites and expensive laboratories to answer important questions so they must always get the correct answers, right? There’s also a lot of math in science that makes their answers even more precise, right?
Not true. There are many, many uncertainties in science. When you add in the human factor and economics, the answers become even more uncertain.
So when Knight Center director Eric Freedman was invited to talk to a journalism class at the University of Georgia in Tbilisi (Republic of Georgia) about the economic costs of pollution, especially health and social costs, he turned first to a comprehensive October 2017 report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health. Investigative environmental journalist Tsira Gvasalia teaches the environmental health reporting course.
While it’s impossible to put a precise price tag on the problem, we can summarize the study by saying that outdoor and indoor air pollution, water and soil contamination, and chemical pollutants cause millions of people to die early each year at a cost of trillions of dollars.
The report concluded that pollution-related effects contributed to 1 in 6 worldwide, or 9 million premature deaths in 2015. The report estimated the economic costs associated with pollution at more than $4.6 trillion each year.
Here are a few of the major findings:
- Air pollution is the biggest contributor, linked to 6.5 million deaths in 2015. Water pollution (1.8 million deaths) and workplace-related pollution (0.8 million deaths) followed. Most deaths are due to non-contagious diseases such as heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.
- More than 90% of those deaths happen in low- and middle-income countries, and in rapidly industrializing countries such as India, Pakistan and China.
- In more developed countries, the cost of reducing or eliminating pollution is much less than the economic benefits – what economists call cost-benefit analysis. Those savings include lower medical expenses, higher productivity at work, increased real estate values and longer lifespans.
- Welfare losses due to pollution are estimated at more than $4.6 trillion each year, equivalent to 6.2 trillion of global economic output.
Freedman also described to the students the scandal of lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, Michigan. That situation carries its own hefty price tag, including $350 million in state spending on water infrastructure and what a Columbia University public health estimated as almost $400 million in long-term social costs based on lower IQ levels for children who drank the contaminated water. Such brain damage would reduce their economic productivity and mean higher costs for the public welfare and justice systems, according to that analysis.