Trevor Hancock: Pollution is not inevitable cost of prosperity

In two previous columns, I explored the scale of chemical pollution in society, and the health and environmental toll it takes, as revealed in the recently released report of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health.

In this final column in the series, I examine the reasons believed to underlie the neglect of this important issue.

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The first is a belief that pollution is just the cost of development, that all countries as they develop have to go through the pollution stage before they become wealthy enough to stop it.

The commission “vigorously challenges that claim as a flawed and obsolete notion.”

Pollution is very costly, both in health terms and in dollars, and thus is a drag on economic development. The commission notes that the productivity losses due to pollution-related diseases “reduce gross domestic product in low-income to middle-income countries by up to two per cent per year,” while it is estimated that “welfare losses due to pollution … amount to … 6.2 per cent of global economic output.”

On the other hand, the report also notes “an estimated $30 US in benefits … for every dollar invested in air-pollution control” in the U.S., while “the removal of lead from gasoline has returned an estimated $200 billion … to the U.S. economy each year since 1980.” Given that we do not even know the health impacts and thus the costs of many pollutants, the benefits of controlling them are likely to be large.

A second reason is that production, use and disposal of chemicals has increasingly been moved to low- and middle-income countries, where awareness is less, costs lower, regulations weaker and enforcement more lax. While this might translate into increased profits for the corporations that move their work to these countries, it exposes local people to levels of chemical use and pollution that would not be tolerated in high-income countries.

It seems to me that it should be a matter of national and international ethical corporate behaviour that no high-income country allow its corporations to operate in another country using practices that would not be permitted in their home country.

Why should people in middle- and low-income countries pay a health price for chemicals that we use and benefit from, and at lower costs than if we produced them here?

This leads to a third key issue: “The opposition of powerful vested interests has been a perennial barrier to control of pollution, especially industrial, vehicular and chemical pollution.” The Lancet commission is blunt in stating that these industries “impugn the science linking pollution to disease, manufacture doubt about the effectiveness of interventions, and paralyze governmental efforts to establish standards, impose pollution taxes, and enforce laws and regulations.”

In his introductory chapter to a section called Contaminants in the Age of the Anthropocene, part of a just-released Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene, Pierre Mineau — a Salt Spring Island-based environmental scientist — supports this analysis. But importantly, he also reminds us that “we all share in the responsibility for not insisting that better systems be put in place to prevent either misguided introductions [of chemicals] or slow and inadequate controls” on their use. And, he might have added, we can try to avoid using them in our homes and communities.

On the positive side, the Lancet commission concludes, we know what we need to do and how to do it. And importantly, if we apply these methods in middle- and low-income countries, we can help them “avoid many of the harmful consequences of pollution, leapfrog the worst of the human and ecological disasters that have plagued industrial development in the past, and improve the health and well-being of their people.”

As with so many other health and environment issues, we see here a decades-long refusal to take seriously the concerns of public-health professionals and environmental activists, who time and again are left saying: “We told you so.” It does not give us great comfort.

It is time we all insisted that governments put the well-being of people and the environment on which they depend — not just here, but around the globe — ahead of the well-being of corporations and their shareholders.

 

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

thancock@uvic.ca

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