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Pollution and Health

This article makes a stink about air, water, and land pollution + effects on human health.

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Pollution and Health — Human Effects and Costs

Occasionally, the water company makes a public announcement like: "Bacteria levels in the drinking water supply are higher than normal. We recommend bottled or boiled water for infants, the elderly, or immune-compromised individuals." Are they really also saying, "You healthy people—don't worry, we're pretty sure your immune systems will be able to kill off the gross stuff in the water..."?

The connection between pollution and health is well established. The relationship can be direct—for instance, sewage overflows contaminating drinking water or high levels of air pollution picture of sky filled with factory smokestacks and pollution causing damage to lung tissue. The relationship can also be indirect—for instance: Discharges of nitrogen and phosphorus from farms and other sources cause harmful overgrowths of toxic algae in coastal areas; zooplankton eat the algae and begin passing the toxins up the food chain, affecting edibles like clams, and ultimately working their way up to seabirds, marine mammals, and humans, resulting in illness and sometimes death. Egad!

This article provides some insights on pollution's effects on human health in the US and globally. It's the second article in a four-part series of excerpts from Lester Brown's excellent book, Plan B 3.0—Mobilizing to Save Civilization.

~    ~    ~

Pollution and Health


Nowhere is pollution damaging human health more than in China. With dangerously high pollution levels, more Chinese are now dying from cancer than any other disease. A Ministry of Health survey of 30 cities and 78 counties that was released in 2007 reveals a rising tide of cancer. Populations of some "cancer villages" are being decimated by the disease.

Jiangsu province, located on the coast just north of Shanghai, is both one of China's most prosperous provinces and one of its most cancer-ridden. Although it has only 5 percent of the country's population, it has 12 percent of the cancer deaths. One river in the province was laden with 93 different carcinogens, most of them from untreated factory waste. Pan Yue, vice minister of China's Environmental Protection Administration, believes his country "is dangerously near a crisis point." The reason, he believes, is ... "an unrestrained pursuit of material gain devoid of morality. Traditional Chinese culture with its emphasis on harmony between human beings and nature," he says, "was thrown aside."


This article covers the effects of pollution on human health, but animals and plants get a dirty deal out of air, water, and land pollution too. For instance, ground-level ozone pollution damages plants, and "pollution stress" is one of the reasons more species of animals and beneficial insects are having a harder time fighting off disease and pathogens.

      — Grinning Planet

The new reality is that each year China grows richer and sicker. Although there are frequent pronouncements urging steps to reduce pollution, these official statements are largely ignored.

Pollution Effects on Human Health

U.S. / U.K. / U.Too.

The Chinese government has yet to truly commit to controlling pollution—China's Environmental Protection Administration has fewer than 300 employees, all located in Beijing. Comparatively, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has 17,000 employees, most of whom work in regional offices around the country where they can observe and monitor pollution at the local level.

Yet the United States is also still feeling the effects of pollution. In July 2005 the Environmental Working Group, in collaboration with Commonweal, released an analysis of umbilical cord blood from 10 randomly selected newborns in US hospitals. They found a total of 287 chemicals in these tests: "Of the 287 chemicals we detected ... we know that 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests." Everyone on the planet shares this "body burden" of toxic chemicals, but infants are at greater risk because they are in the highly vulnerable formative stage of early development.

The World Health Organization reports an estimated 3 million deaths worldwide each year from air pollutants—three times the number of traffic fatalities. In the United States, air pollution each year claims 70,000 lives, compared with the country's 45,000 traffic deaths.


Worried about air pollution but still smoking cigarettes? Time for a reality check. Globally, air pollution is indeed a killer, causing 3 million deaths a year. But Lester Brown points out that cigarette smoke kills even more— 5 million plus.

      — Grinning Planet

A British research team reports a surprising rise in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, and in motor neuron disease generally, in 10 industrial countries—six in Europe plus the United States, Japan, Canada, and Australia. In England and Wales, deaths from these brain diseases increased from 3,000 per year in the late 1970s to 10,000 in the late 1990s. Over an 18-year period, death rates from these diseases, mainly Alzheimer's, more than tripled for men and nearly doubled for women. This increase in dementia is likely linked to a rise in the concentration of pesticides, industrial effluents, car exhaust, and other pollutants in the environment. A 2006 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that long-term low-level exposure to pesticides raised the risk of developing Parkinson's disease by 70 percent.

Health and Pollution


Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the various effects of mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Mercury now permeates the environment in virtually all countries with coal-burning power plants and many countries with gold mines. For example, gold miners release an estimated 290,000 pounds of mercury into the Amazon ecosystem each year. Coal-burning power plants release nearly 100,000 pounds of mercury annually into the air in the United States. The US EPA reports that "mercury from power plants settles over waterways, polluting rivers and lakes, contaminating fish."

In 2006, 48 of the 50 states in the US (all but Alaska and Wyoming) issued a total of 3,080 fish advisories warning against eating fish from local lakes and streams because of their mercury content. EPA research indicates that one out of every six women of childbearing age in the United States has enough mercury in her blood to harm a developing fetus. This means that 630,000 of the 4 million babies born in the country each year may face neurological damage from mercury exposure before birth.

Pollution Effects on Human Health


No one knows exactly how many chemicals are manufactured today, but with the advent of synthetic chemicals, the number of chemicals in use has climbed to over 100,000. A random blood test of Americans usually shows measurable amounts of 200 or more chemicals that did not exist a century ago.

Most of these new chemicals have not been tested for toxicity. Those that are known to be toxic are included in a list of nearly 650 chemicals whose discharge by industry into the environment must be reported to the EPA. The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), now accessible on the Internet, provides information on a community-by-community basis, arming local groups with data needed to evaluate the potential threats to their health and that of the environment. Since the TRI was inaugurated in 1988, reported toxic chemical emissions have declined dramatically.


In late 2006, the US EPA modified the monitoring requirements for the Toxics Release Inventory, raising the minimum level of annual chemical release that must be reported from 500 pounds to 2,000 pounds. According to calculations done by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the eased requirements mean that more than 5.7 million pounds of chemical pollution, plus 10.5 million pounds of production-related waste, will now go unreported each year.

— Source: Gina Solomon, M.D., Senior Scientist, NRDC

Pollution and Health


The idea of a pollution-free environment is difficult for us even to imagine, simply because none of us has ever known an energy-based economy that was not highly polluting. Here are a few examples of ways to address pollution and its health effects.

Urban air pollution from automobiles is emerging as a leading health issue in hundreds of cities. Worsening congestion also takes a direct economic toll in rising costs in time and gasoline. Some cities are reducing traffic congestion and air pollution by charging cars to enter the city. Singapore's tax on all roads leading into the city center reduced the number of automobiles in Singapore, providing its residents with both more mobility and cleaner air. In London, a congestion fee was adopted with success, permitting traffic to flow more freely while cutting pollution and noise.

Promoting bicycle use also alleviates traffic congestion and lowers air pollution. It has the added advantage of increasing physical fitness. Regular exercise of the sort provided by cycling to work reduces cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, and obesity, and it strengthens the immune system.

Contamination of water by sewage pathogens is a huge public health challenge, particularly in developing countries. Worldwide, poor sanitation and personal hygiene claim the lives of some 2 million children per year, a toll that is one third the 6 million lives claimed by hunger and malnutrition. Fortunately, there is a low-cost alternative to expensive state-of-the art water-based sewage treatment systems. The composting toilet is an essentially odorless system that can convert human fecal material and kitchen waste into a soil-like humus, reducing the spread of disease and ensuring that nutrients and organic matter are returned to the soil to nourish the next season of crops.

Even accounting has a role to play in reducing pollution and its effects on human health. For instance, the indirect costs of burning coal—the costs of air pollution, acid rain, devastated ecosystems, and climate change—are not properly accounted for in the price consumers pay for electricity from coal-fired power plants. Such costs can even exceed the direct costs of coal, i.e. those of mining the coal, transporting it to the power plant, and running the facility. As a result of neglecting to account for these indirect costs, the market is creating economic distortions. Consumers, corporate planners, government policymakers, even investment bankers—all depend on the market for information to guide us. In order for markets to work and economic actors to make sound decisions, the markets must give us good information, including the full cost of the products we buy.

For more solutions to pollution and health—and the numerous other environmental trends that are undermining our future—see Plan B 3.0.

About The Author

Lester Brown Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute, whose goal is to provide a plan for building a sustainable future and a roadmap of how to get from here to there. Brown has been described as "one of the world's most influential thinkers" by the Washington Post; The Telegraph of Calcutta called him "the guru of the environmental movement"; and the Library of Congress requested his papers for their archives.


Plan B 3.0

Mobilizing to Save Civilization
(by Lester Brown)

book cover for Plan B 3.0, by Lester Brown, 1/16/2008 GP REVIEW: Modern economics rarely puts value on the products and services of earth's ecosystems—other than from a resource exploitation or development perspective. For instance, ignored are the benefits of forests, grasslands, wetlands, and coral reefs for purifying water, conserving soil, sequestering carbon, buffering coastal infrastructure against hurricanes, and providing spawning areas for fish. In Plan B 3.0, Lester Brown makes it very clear that we cannot continue to allow earth's essential systems to be "externalities" in the economic equation. To do so imperils civilization itself.  Read full review of Plan B 3.0

Grinning Planet publish date: 04-MAY-2008

Grinning Planet End Note

Thanks again to Lester Brown and the EPI team for their great work in Plan B 3.0 and for this article.

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The War on Cancer set out to find, treat, and cure a disease. Left untouched were many of the things known to cause cancer, including radiation and chemicals. Proof of how the world in which we live and work affects whether we get cancer was either overlooked or suppressed. This has been no accident—the War on Cancer was hijacked by leaders of industries that made make cancer-causing products, companies that sometimes also profit from drugs and technologies used to find and treat the disease. The Secret History of the War on Cancer shows how we began fighting the wrong war, with the wrong weapons, against the wrong enemies—a legacy that persists to this day.

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"In Mexico City, Tehran, Kolkata, Bangkok, Shanghai, and hundreds of other cities, the air is no longer safe to breathe. In some cities, the air is so polluted that breathing is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes per day."

— Lester Brown, Plan B 3.0


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