The environmental effects of pollution are obvious, whether it is a polluted lake or greenhouse gas emissions. The impacts can last decades and require expensive labor-intensive clean-up. Pollution, however, extracts another even higher cost in human lives.
Quantifying the Cost in Human Lives
Pollution can affect human quality of life on several fronts. Air pollution can increase the risk for respiratory disease or worsen pre-existing conditions. Water pollution brings a whole host of other problems with infectious disease. Soil pollution carries additional environmental risks.
A 2007 study by a Cornell University professor quantified the extreme cost of pollution. David Pimentel and his team found that pollution causes 40 percent of the deaths worldwide. Specifically, Pimentel explained that 1.2 billion people lack access to clean, safe water. This factor contributes to the nearly three million deaths each year due to water pollution.
The Rising Threat of Air Pollution
Pimentel estimated that air pollution kills nearly three million people each year as well. A new study by France’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) places the threat even higher. Researchers warned that air pollution will become the greatest threat to human lives by 2050.
Population growth and development are contributing to a scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions will increase to all-time highs. The study projects that the world economy will quadruple, resulting in an 80 percent increase in energy needs. This will result in a 70 percent increase in worldwide carbon dioxide emissions alone.
The rise in greenhouse gas emissions will lead to an increase in human mortality from particulate matter and exposure to ground-level ozone. The latter cause is projected to more than double. The effects will be particularly dire in urban areas, with Asia feeling the greatest impact.
The environmental risks will extend to threats to biodiversity both on land and water. In addition, loss of mature forests will worsen the consequences of increased carbon dioxide emissions by removing existing sinks. These findings paint a sobering image of the effects of inaction.
Already some factors supporting this scenario have fallen in place, with air pollution concentrations in some areas exceeding World Health Organization safe levels. Without new policies, the future for the planet looks grim.