pollution might just be humanity’s most pressing problem.
More than 9 million deaths were linked to “polluted air, water and soil,” in 2015, according to an explosive new report published in The Lancet, a UK medical journal. To provide some context, this means that pollution accounted for 16 percent of all deaths worldwide, “three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence,” according to the report’s executive summary. This figure, as the study’s authors point out, may in fact be conservative, and could be millions higher, “because the impact of many pollutants are poorly understood.”
The study drew from the work done in previous studies that “show how pollution is tied to a wider range of diseases than previously thought,” including asthma, cancer, heart and lung disease, and neurological disorders. The vast majority of deaths – a full 92 percent, according to the report – took place in undeveloped or developing countries, a shocking statistic that nevertheless still provides some hope: the study’s authors say that “the big improvements that have been made in developed nations in recent decades show that beating pollution is a winnable battle if there is the political will.”
Other highlights from the study:
- Deaths from air pollution “are on track to double by 2050” in southeast Asia;
- The costs of pollution are $4.6 trillion each year, according to the study’s estimate – “equivalent to more than 6% of global GDP”;
- Of the various forms of pollution, toxic air contributed the greatest number of deaths, at 7.4 million, water pollution (this means sewage, most often) resulted in 1.8 million deaths, and workplace pollution, “including exposure to toxins, carcinogens and secondhand tobacco smoke,” resulted in 800,000 deaths.
- Although the highest rates of pollution death are found among small developing countries, it’s India, with 2.5 million deaths, and China, with 1.8 million, that have the greatest number of deaths linked to pollution. Both Russia and the US are in the top ten as well.
According to lead author Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and professor of environmental medicine and global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, stricter regulation of toxic chemicals can often benefit economies, which “puts the lie to what we hear that controlling pollution is going to kill jobs.” As an example, Landrigan cites the passage in the US of the Clean Air Act, which has brought air pollution levels down 70 percent in the intervening years, even as GDP has increased 250 percent.
“Pollution is one of the great existential challenges of the Anthropocene era. Pollution endangers the stability of the Earth’s support systems and threatens the continuing survival of human societies.”
The Lancet Commission on pollution and health
The Lancet Commission on pollution and health
The study’s conclusions, along with a just-released report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) which “found that costs [linked to climate change] may rise to as much as $35 billion per year by 2050,” are surfacing at a particularly transformative moment for the EPA – established the same year, 1970, that the Clean Air Act was amended to give the federal government much greater power to regulate chemical use. Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has not accepted scientific consensus around climate change, and who pressed President Donald Trump to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, has “embarked on record-setting rollbacks,” which include “plans to repeal pollution in the nation’s waterways [and] delaying rules requiring fossil fuel companies to rein in leaks of methane and greenhouse gases.” Pruitt also refused to ban a farm pesticide, chlorpyrifos, that poses a health risk to children and farm workers, and that has already, since 2000, been banned from most household use. The list goes on: the EPA under Pruitt has moved to suppress research into – and even mention of – climate change, including removing references on its website, canceling public talks, and removing from advisory roles scientists who’ve received federal grants for studies, and politicizing the issue by creating “red team-blue team” exercises between scientists who doubt climate change and those who don’t. Such exercises create false equivalences on a topic that’s already got near-unanimous scientific consensus. Pruitt has also moved to repeal the Obama administration’s signature climate regulation, the Clean Power Plan, in an effort to bolster the coal industry, long in decline due to the rise of natural gas and renewables, and has tasked his agency to respond to permit requests in six months or fewer, which means big, complicated projects with difficult-to-predict outcomes could get the greenlight without receiving thorough vetting.
What this amounts to, in the eyes of many folks on the left, is a full-on assault on the environment, but Pruitt and co. see themselves as reformers, trimming away at bureaucratic fat and demanding the science around disputed chemicals be utterly airtight before acting to regulate, rather than allowing what Dr. Nancy Beck, one of Pruitt’s top deputies, calls “phantom risks” to bottleneck industry. It’s a typically Republican approach, maybe more destructively so in this administration than in previous ones, although this may just be because there’s more to destroy: the Obama administration significantly expanded the role of the EPA in its efforts to address climate change, and also took a rather-safe-than-sorry approach to chemical regulation which, in light of The Lancet report, may prove to be the right one. As Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, who until her retirement last month was “the agency’s top official overseeing pesticides and toxic chemicals,” asserts,
You are never going to have 100 percent certainty on anything, but when you have a chemical that evidence points to is causing fatalities, you err more on the side of taking some action, as opposed to ‘Let’s wait and spend some more time and try to get the science entirely certain,’ which it hardly ever gets to be.
The New York Times’s The Daily podcast posted a fantastic episode on Tuesday about the perceptions each side of the EPA debate has of itself, which you can find here.
A new study summarizing observations “across 63 German nature reserves” reveals a disturbing 76 percent decline in flying insect biomass.
- The study’s authors aren’t sure why this happened, but speculate that pesticide use in adjacent areas, coupled with climate change, has played a significant role.
- The authors also believe their findings to “be representative of much of Europe and other areas of the globe.”
- A key quote: “Lack of insects is very likely to be detrimental to the entire ecosystem…insects play a crucial role in ecosystems, being responsible for plant pollination and nutrient recycling as well as acting as a food source for animals such as birds, amphibians, reptiles, bats and small animals.”
An 11-year-old motivated by Flint’s still-polluted (honestly, how?) water invented a lead-detecting device.
- From NPR’s description of the device: “there is a disposable cartridge containing chemically treated carbon nanotube arrays, an Arduino-based signal processor with a Bluetooth attachment, and a smartphone app that can display the results.”
- What we’d like to know: how does an 11-year-old get her hands on carbon nanotubes?
China’s new ban on 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste could mean that much of what we recycle ends up in the trash.
- Why? “China is the dominant market for recycled plastic,” according to Christian Cole in The Conversation. Here in the US, we export around 1.4 million tons of recycled plastic to China.
- Double bonus: a tiny Montana company with links to Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke just landed a $300 million contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure. Whitefish Energy Holdings, which had just two employees when Hurricane Maria made landfall last month in Puerto Rico, is based in Zinke’s hometown and owned by a friend of his.
The first-ever floating wind turbines—these five turbines off the coast of Scotland have the potential to power, at peak, up to 20,000 homes.
According to a brand new study in Nature Communications, “water rose rapidly, in punctuated bursts, rather than gradually over time” during the last global warming period more than 10,000 years ago. The researchers “suggest[ed] these past events could be viewed as a kind of ‘analog’ for the future.”
- Double bonus: a new story in The Atlantic, summarizing the results of a different study, would seem to confirm this: “Climate Change Will Bring Major Flooding to New York Every 5 Years”.
Let’s end this on a positive note: here’s a livestream from the inside of a little penguin burrow.
Makayla Esposito contributed to this report.
header image: "pollution," possan / flickr