The Health Costs of Pollution

We’ve all heard about the health costs of pollution, but which types of pollution affect health, and in what ways? And what can the average person do about it?

By Nicole Lyka of Rank-It

In this day and age, we’ve all heard how various kinds of pollution impacts the environment and how individuals as well as corporations and even fashion brands need to be more sustainable. Let’s take water pollution as an example – water pollution in the forms of thermal pollution and sewage runoff make underwater environments inhospitable for several organisms.

However, pollution doesn’t stop at just our environment – the aforementioned types of water pollution can encourage the growth of algae, which can produce toxins that are dangerous to humans and other wildlife according to the NRDC.

Even if you’re not personally affected by water pollution, it doesn’t mean that pollution in general is a far-off problem – it affects everybody’s health in one way or another. Did you know that according to Harvard T.H. CHAN that fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for 1 in 5 deaths globally?

Even something as innocuous seeming as noise can affect our health – a World Health Organization report from 2011 notes how noise pollution can affect our health in terms of disability adjusted life years (years lost due to death or disability that were caused by noise pollution). 903,000 years were lost due to noise-induced sleep disturbances, 45,000 years lost due to noise-induced cognitive impairment in children, 22,000 years lost due to tinnitus and 587,000 years lost for annoyance.

Below, we’ll go over in more detail on the health costs of pollution of how various kinds:

Air Pollution

Air pollution is essentially the presence of any toxic chemicals or compounds in the air. A review published in Front Public Health goes over several of the adverse health effects that are associated with air pollution, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma and retinopathy.

Even if you currently don’t have any of the above conditions, poor air quality still affects you.

Consider the air quality index in your city. If you go out to exercise on a day when the air quality index is poor (e.g. during moderate or high risk times) can result in throat irritation, bronchitis, headaches and nausea. In terms of long term exposure, an article from the National Geographic states air pollution can result in lung damage, lung cancer, heart disease, harm to various organs or any of the adverse health effects that were mentioned above.

In terms of health costs of pollution in the air, it is projected to cost 1% of global GDP by 2060 (approximately 2.6 trillion USD per year), which includes costs for sick days and medical bills according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Additionally, it’s also projected that 6-9 million premature deaths will be attributable to air pollution by 2060.

Overall, air pollution has sizeable negative impacts over both the long term as well as day to day living.

Health Costs of Pollution: Factories and ships at see pumping out smoke
Health Costs of Pollution: Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash

Water Pollution

Much like air pollution, water pollution can also significantly impact our health. One prominent form of water pollution is sewage pollution. As stated by the United Nations Environment Programme, sewage (AKA wastewater) contains plastic particles, pollutants and traces of medication, all of which can negatively impact human health.

Let’s further examine how plastic in the water system can affect our health.

A 2020 review study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health goes over how several compounds used in the manufacturing of plastics can harm human health. For example, phthalates are commonly used to add pliability or flexibility to plastics. However, several phthalates have been found to have negative effects on reproduction, prenatal and postnatal development as well as associations with cancer.

Similarly, bisphenol A (BPA), a common compound used in plastic food packaging, also has been found to have negative health impacts. BPA is estrogenic, meaning it can interfere with the estrogen that our bodies naturally produce. In turn, this can promote obesity, heart disease, reproductive issues as well as breast cancer in humans.

Moving on, sewage or water containing human waste itself is harmful in that it harbors various pathogens that cause disease and illness in humans. Without appropriate wastewater treatment, populations are at risk of pathogens like Escherichia colior Giardia duodenalis causing gastroenteritis, diarrhea, giardiasis or other illnesses as mentioned by a 2016 study published in Advances in Applied Microbiology.

Overall, to put things into perspective, it was estimated in 2015 that 1.8 million deaths were caused by water pollution according to a CTV news article. Much like air pollution, we can experience both long term and short-term health impacts as a part of the health costs of pollution in water.

Noise Pollution

As noted above, noise pollution too can impact our health and reduce our lifespan as well as our quality of life. What might be surprising to note is that noise pollution isn’t only associated with hearing related disorders or headaches. For example, one study published in Noise & Health found that neighborhood noise (noise heard from neighboring apartments, inside stairwells and within apartments themselves) was associated with an increased health risk of not only migraines but also depression and cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, constant exposure to road noises as well as traffic noises was found to increase risk for ischemic heart diseases (such as coronary artery disease) and hypertension across multiple studies according to an article published in BMC Public Health.

Let’s look at some stats to put things into perspective – according to the European Environment Agency, it’s estimated that environmental noise pollution contributes to:

  • 48,000 new cases of ischaemic heart disease a year
  • 12,000 premature deaths per year
  • 22 million cases of chronic high annoyance

In short, while noise pollution may not cause us harm through chemicals or pathogens like air pollution and water pollution do, it still has significant impacts on our health.

Final Thoughts on The Health Costs of Pollution

So now that you know that pollution is more than just a passing environmental concern, what should you do about it?

There are things that both us (as consumers) as well as businesses can do to reduce the amount of pollution that’s released into the air, water and land. For consumers, that often looks like reusing items, using energy-efficient appliances and thrifting items. For businesses, they can also use more energy-efficient appliances or choose to support sustainable electricity generation via renewable energy certificates or carbon offsets.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that even small changes are helpful and that your actions can positively impact your own health as well as the health of your community overall.