A major study published last month in the Lancet, a British medical journal, found that there is a global killer responsible for more deaths than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined: pollution.
The problem is affecting every country on the planet. It is expensive, costing $4.6 trillion a year — about 6 percent of global gross domestic product — in hours not worked, premature deaths, health spending and eroded quality of life. The study associated pollution with 1 in 6 premature deaths, 9 million people in 2015.
Air pollution is the leading culprit, linked to 6.5 million deaths, followed by water pollution, with 1.8 million. Particulates, toxic chemicals and smog-forming gases result from burning fuel, from dung-fired stoves to coal-burning power plants. Such pollution promotes asthma, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer.
Developing nations are much worse off than developed countries, the study found, accounting for 92 percent of the premature deaths globally. Pollution drives a quarter of deaths in some lower-income countries. But the study's authors argue that countries should not "wait for an economy to reach a magical tipping point that will solve the problems of environmental degradation and pollution-related disease."
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Instead, the authors say, developing nations should look to the United States. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and the enforcement of the Clean Air and the Clean Water acts resulted in dramatic reductions in pollution. Not every pollution restriction that environmentalists dream up makes sense. But mandating relatively cheap pollution controls or, when possible, taxing polluters for the damage they do can result in a good value proposition for developing and developed nations alike.
Poor countries struggling to pull their citizens out of poverty may find it tough to take the long view. Many Americans, including the Trump administration, still fail to do so. Conservative critics of environmental rules often overstate the potential costs of pollution controls and discount the benefits. The Trump administration is on this basis weakening pollution rules across the board. Yet the United States has hardly finished the job; the nation still sees tons of pollution pumped into the air, directly harming people and contributing to global warming.
The study should remind global leaders that, though there are costs for restricting pollution, there also are costs for failing to do so. Both sides must be weighed to find the right balance.