Show me the money – the cost of air pollution

What gets your attention more when you think about air pollution – what it’s costing your health, what it’s costing the environment, or what it’s costing you in dollars and cents?

That’s a question we, as social marketing specialists, have pondered repeatedly over a decade of working to increase attention, awareness and personal action related to protecting health and the quality of the air.

High concentrations of air pollution, the kind generated from forest fires like we experience in British Columbia, Canada or the ‘smog’ Beijing and northern China are continually facing, renews people’s interest in air – not just related to health but also the economy.

Recently, hundreds of cities across China have experienced dangerous spikes in air pollution levels – 20 to 30 times that which is deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO). The causes are many and the solutions will challenge the government and people for decades or longer.

The economic impact of air pollution is quickly gaining a place alongside health and China’s experience shines a light, or maybe a dismal haze, on this fact.  An MIT study in 2012 estimated that air pollution, back in 2005, cost the Chinese economy $112 billion in lost labour and healthcare costs.  The economic impact of air pollution has finally earned its place in international news.  When airplanes are grounded and airports closed because of smog, and hundreds of businesses — chemical plants, construction sites and factories – close temporarily in an attempt to curb it, more people started adding up the ‘costs’ of air pollution, from an economic perspective.

It made me think back to a conversation we had a couple of years ago with Dr. AJ Hedley from the School of Public Health at The University of Hong Kong.  At that time we discussed his work in developing the Hedley Environmental Index, which monitors and publishes the economic burden of Hong Kong’s air pollution in terms of public health impacts and costs.

Their 2008 study at the University of Hong Kong, equated the poor state of the air in Hong Kong to 1,335 deaths, 60,587 hospital bed days and $6.7 million worth of costs related to doctors visits per year  – with both direct costs and productivity losses of over US $240 million per year.

Hong Kong’s population is 6.9 million – compared to just over 20 million in Beijing, for example, where air pollution concentrations have comparatively been worse.  Side note, a study undertaken by the World Bank in 2007 estimated that air and water pollution account for about 5.8% of China’s GDP in premature deaths, healthcare costs and material damages.

Hong Kong’s population is not far off the population of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Canada’s most populated city.  In Canada, local air quality is reported in relation to its effect on health.  What if that reporting included a real time calculation of the economic burden as well – like is reported on the Hedley Index in Hong Kong.

Which comes full circle for us in our social marketing strategies related to air quality.  If you’ve been following air quality crisis in China, you know the attention it’s been getting there, and around the globe, is due in part, to activism and advocacy by the Chinese people, non-governmental organizations and media. Those groups have forced a new degree of transparency in the reporting of air pollution.  It’s the kind of activism and advocacy that comes from increased awareness and understanding of an issue.  The kind that comes from getting people’s attention.

So, we keep wondering, and have even applied for funding to research this further, specifically, what would get people’s attention more – the effect of air quality on their health, on the environment or perhaps on their wallet.  We’d guess many would still be most influenced by air pollution’s effects on health.  But others may need to be given the hard facts about the economic burden of air pollution.  When they see what air pollution is really costing, they may want to know more, and perhaps do more, about the air we share.

So – when you think about air pollution, do you think about the leaves and trees, the child that can’t breath or the cold hard cash?  Maybe now you’ll think about all three.

About Sharon Stevens

Sharon Stevens is the owner and CEO of Airshift Group. Email Sharon Stevens

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