Losing health and labor due to air pollution – more than we knew

A new report from the World Bank has concluded that air pollution is the deadliest form of pollution, and the fourth leading cause of premature deaths worldwide, while costing the global economy about $225 billion in lost labor income in 2013.

The new study published by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) this week, The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for actionoutlines the costs of premature deaths related to air pollution in an effort to strengthen the case for necessary action, and to facilitate decision-making to tackle the issue.

Specifically, according to the report, an estimated 5.5 million lives were lost in 2013 as a result of various diseases attributed to indoor and outdoor air pollution. In addition, approximately $225 billion was lost due to lost labor income as a direct result of air pollution.

“Air pollution is a challenge that threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital, and constrains economic growth,” said Laura Tuck, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank.

“We hope this study will translate the cost of premature deaths into an economic language that resonates with policy makers so that more resources will be devoted to improving air quality. By supporting healthier cities and investments in cleaner sources of energy, we can reduce dangerous emissions, slow climate change, and most importantly save lives.”

Attaching a dollar value to the loss of life caused by air pollution-related deaths isn’t something we really like to think about — and it gets worse, considering that the majority of deaths caused by air pollution affect children and the elderly, i.e., those no longer in the global labor workforce. Nevertheless, the annual labor income losses cost the equivalent of almost 1% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in South Asia, and 0.25% of GDP in East Asia and the Pacific. Sub-Saharan Africa loses the equivalent of 0.61% of its GDP.

Worldwide, looking at fatalities across all age groups through the lens of “welfare losses,” the aggregate cost of premature deaths exceeded $5 trillion in 2013.

Unsurprisingly, deaths due to air pollution are increasing in heavily populated, fast-urbanizing regions. Deaths related to cooking and heating homes with solid fuels have remained relatively stable, though that figure isn’t exactly something we should be comfortable with. In total, diseases attributed to household and outdoor air pollution caused 1 in 10 deaths in 2013 — more than six times the number of deaths caused by malaria in that year.

“This report and the burden of disease associated with air pollution are an urgent call to action,” said Dr. Chris Murray, Director of IHME.

“Of all the different risk factors for premature deaths, this is one area, the air we breathe, over which individuals have little control. Policy makers in health and environment agencies, as well as leaders in various industries, are facing growing demands — and expectations — to address this problem.”

The report has been met with support from other environmental groups looking to raise awareness for the dangers of air pollution, and the need to act.

“This report from the World Bank shows that air pollution is not only a health crisis but is also hugely damaging to the global economy,” said James Thornton, CEO of environmental lawyers ClientEarth. “Without a serious and concerted effort from governments worldwide, toxic air will continue to destroy lives and livelihoods for years to come. Politicians need to act and swiftly.”

“That’s why we are launching a wave of new legal cases across Europe in the next few weeks. In the UK, we are being forced to take the government back to court next month, despite a Supreme Court ruling against them, just to get ministers to comply with legal air pollution limits set to protect people’s health. This issue is simply not being taken seriously enough by those in power.”

Air pollution has emerged as the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide. While pollution-related deaths mainly strike young children and the elderly, these deaths also result in lost labor income for working-age men and women. The loss of life is tragic. The cost to the economy is substantial. The infographic below is mainly based on findings from The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the economic case for action, a joint study of the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).