Why you should care
Even fresh snow at the top of Mount Everest is too polluted to drink safely these days.
Every day when you pull up your favorite news source on that iPad or smartphone, you’re seeing stories about severe child malnutrition, malaria’s stronghold in Africa, the relentless spread of HIV. The collapse of the bee population! Arsenic in India’s water! Surely one of them holds the title of greatest global killer. Well, not if you go by the numbers, as we prefer to do.
Turns out the biggest killer in the developing world is pollution. According to the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution,
exposure to polluted soil, water and air killed 9 million people in 2012, and 8.4 million of them were in poor countries.
That’s a third more than deaths from tobacco, almost six times more than from HIV/AIDS and 14 times those of malaria. This is likely to only get worse since, as India and China have proved, economic development and pollution are linked. “Often industries can be both a source of pollution and a source of jobs,” says Randall Kramer, professor of environmental economics and global health at Duke University. And it’s maddeningly difficult to challenge something that provides income to the hungry or electricity to the destitute.
To make things worst, toxic pollution is extremely hard to quantify (health data shows disease, not cause) and increasingly omnipresent — even fresh snow at the top of Mount Everest is too polluted to drink safely these days. Besides which, pollution travels better than a trust-fund kid with daddy’s AmEx. Mercury released by gold mining in Asia or Latin America can end up in fish consumed in Europe or North America. Even when poor countries try to recycle some of these toxic materials, the health risks are high. In Senegal, a woman lost her five children to lead poisoning because of her job recycling lead-acid batteries by hand.
“Wealthy countries have largely forgotten the terrible costs of extreme pollution, and developing countries are just beginning to realize the real price they’re unnecessarily paying for economic development,” says Angela S. Bernhardt, director of communications at Pure Earth, a nongovernmental organization that cleans up toxic waste sites in poor countries.
But even their hard-won economic development could be hindered by pollution. Environmental degradation is estimated to cost China about 9 percent of its annual GDP, according to the World Bank. And besides health care costs, pollution can also hinder a nation’s economic potential. A 2005 study in the U.S. found that 600,000 children suffered loss of IQ annually as a result of mercury pollution, leading to a loss in productivity of $8.7 billion a year.
Poor countries will likely always be torn between development and health, but experts think there’s hope. “With the right policies, it is not inevitable that a country trades off more development for lower environmental quality and levels of human health,” says Kramer, pointing out Costa Rica as an example of a nation that has been able to achieve poverty reduction while protecting the environment. For now, however, it’s the exception that confirms the rule.