Economic costs of pollution simply sickening

Contemporary society must have a love-hate relationship with numbers. On the one hand, we venerate statistical measures (think of the wilderness of sports stats!) and financial accounting­–is inflation up 1.27 per cent or 1.35 per cent!? On the other, when issues are complex, vague, or difficult to comprehend, we ignore their measurement altogether.

It is this latter omission that fortunately some researchers have taken on. Attended to, their findings could prove useful and to all our benefit. In April of 2017, the International Institute for Sustainable Development released a report (whose methodology was endorsed by the Conference Board of Canada) providing an estimate of the costs of pollution on ordinary citizens and families.

Their conclusion is shocking, although not altogether unexpected: pollution costs Canadian families, businesses and governments up to tens of billions of dollars annually at least!

First of all, pollution makes people sick. Tailpipe emissions, industrial smoke, and persistent organic compounds such as flame retardants and pesticides generate cancers, exacerbate heart disease, and cause pulmonary distress. These illnesses cost enormous amounts to treat (medical expertise and pharmaceuticals do not come cheaply), create costs in the form of lost productivity (most of us don’t work from hospital beds), and diminish quality of life.

Second, many of the things we use are damaged by pollution. Farmers’ crops are stunted by air pollution, building materials are stained and eroded, industrial sites are contaminated. Polluted water must be purified before it can be used either for consumption or for many industrial processes. Assets and infrastructure deteriorate and depreciate in value.

The report assembles pollution’s costs into three main categories: health and well-being costs, lost income and increased expenses, and reduced asset values.

The first of these, ‘health and well-being costs,’ include smog (particulate matter and ground-level ozone), water pathogens (bacteria and viruses in contaminated water), pesticides and herbicides (aw, but the lawn looks so nice!), heavy metals, noise (even Terrace sounds like Possum Lake sometimes, with chattering chainsaws and growling 4X4s), and extreme weather events (last year’s summer fires were terrifying).

‘Lost income and increased costs’ involve unpaid sick time, uninsured pharmaceutical and medical costs, acid rain leading to crop loss, honeybee deaths causing incomplete crop pollination, spill cleanups and management of contaminated sites (including ‘safe’ storage of nuclear waste).

The ‘reduced asset values’ category embraces algal blooms, beetle-killed forests, acidifying ocean water (shellfish cultivators are finding lowered viability of the species they are trying to raise and harvest), real estate deterioration due to increased noise, destroyed visual appeal, structural erosion, etc., and the runoff of road salt and nitrogen fertilizers.

Payouts for the increasing frequency of extreme weather events are raising the costs of insurance, and the events themselves cause diminished income when burned or flooded assets are unavailable for use.

In monetary terms, these three categories have so far been estimated to impact Canadians as follows:

1. Direct welfare costs are about $39 billion but likely much higher. This amounts to about $1,100 per citizen per year.

2. Income costs are at least $3 billion per year, but again, “likely much higher,” upwards of three per cent of national income yearly.

3. Assets (both produced and natural) are dramatically affected. The report concludes that, “Overall, Canada has trillions of dollars of produced and natural assets at risk from pollution. Though no estimate of the current loss in value of these assets due to pollution was possible, it can be said that this loss is likely to be very significant.”

Some forms of pollution have been inadequately studied, and therefore the costs they may potentially create are unknown. Climate change is a wild card that suggests extreme risk. Persistent organic pollutants (the thousands of organic chemicals that we have littered throughout our land and seascapes) carry unknown future risk, as do heavy metals we have released into the environment.

It’s not a happy picture, but it’s at least a beginning. As has been said, “Better the devil you know…”

We may be thrilled with the rise of the stock market and the reassurances of a marketing world touting “better living through chemistry,” but I’m reminded of some graffiti I once saw during a BC recession: “Gold is up; life is down.”

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