The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released a study of the impact that air pollution has on human health around the world. It estimates that approximately 8.0 million people died in 2012 from air pollution related health issues: 3.7 million from outdoor air pollution exposure and 4.3 million from indoor air pollution exposure.
Critics have used this study to implore all nations to curtail air pollution levels. As usual, there is no consideration among the media responses that calls for using the economic approach to generate the greatest “bang for the buck.” Let me explain:
The WHO estimates that outdoor pollution caused 1.7 million deaths among the low-income nations of the Western Pacific, which amounts to 102 deaths per 100,000 people. It also estimates that outdoor pollution caused 0.9 million deaths in Southeast Asia, or 51 deaths per 100,000 people. The WHO states that these two regions alone accounted for 70% of all deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution.
Indeed, the WHO report states that, “88% of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, which represent 82% of the world population.” It appears that people living in high income nations have largely avoided air pollution related deaths, either through lack of exposure or having better access to effective medical care.
Is the proper response to curtail economic prosperity and growth in the low to middle income countries in an attempt to decrease the levels of air pollution that economic activity creates, and thereby lower exposure levels? Or might the answer be to raise everyone’s living standards in these countries as much as possible, so that they, too, have the same options available that their more prosperous neighbors have? Perhaps these populations could afford lower-polluting but more costly production technologies, or could afford to provide better medical care options to those exposed. Which is best?
The WHO report indirectly yields evidence that would support the latter possibility, for it also reports on indoor pollution death rates. It estimates that in 2012, indoor pollution caused 1.7 million deaths in Southeast Asia, or 92 deaths per 100,000 people. Indoor pollution also caused 1.6 million deaths in the low-income Western Pacific nations, or 99 deaths per 100,000 people. These two regions alone accounted for over 75% of all deaths attributable to indoor air pollution. Adding the African nations raises the total to 90% of all deaths in 2012. Rich nation’s populations simply are not exposed to the indoor pollution from open-hearth cooking pits or dung-burning heat sources during cold weather.
Contrast these figures to only 1,300 deaths that the WHO states as arising in the high-income nations of the Americas, or only 0.3 deaths per 100,000 people. There were fewer than 100 deaths in high income European nations, or a number of deaths per 100,000 that was indistinguishable from zero. In fact, a recent WHO press release notes that, “deaths from household air pollution are over 5 times greater in low- and middle-income countries than wealthier ones.” I say let the nations prosper, and these death rates will fall.