Today’s Solutions: June 13, 2024

Every dollar invested to limit air pollution saves US$10 in healthcare costs. A car powered by hydrogen only emits water vapour: no pollution.

| August 2003 issue

Air pollution is the argument for the hydrogen economy. Air pollution generated by exhaust from factories and cars kills thousands of people every day across the globe. You read it right: thousands every day. The United Nations environment program (UNEP) recently issued a warning about the Asian Brown Cloud, a thick layer of smog that hangs nearly permanently above parts of southern Asia and is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year due to bronchial infections. Recently, SARS threatened to bring the global economy to a standstill leaving scores of deaths in its wake.
In her book ‘When Smoke Ran Like Water’ (Basic Books, 2002), the American scientist Devra Davis convincingly demonstrates how life threatening air pollution is. Davis is a recognised expert. Under President Clinton, she was a member of the US national council on chemical safety. She is also an advisor to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Davis cites a study from 1980 that showed that 4% of the annual deaths in the US (60,000 total) are a direct result of air pollution. In 2000, that study was repeated with nearly the same results.
In 1993 the New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing a clear correlation between higher concentrations of pollution in cities and the daily mortality rate. How many people sit in traffic and live in cities every day, breathing unhealthy pollutants? And the more air pollution, the more cases of lung cancer – the deadliest form of the disease. The American Cancer Society estimates that the risk of contracting lung cancer as a result of living in polluted air is just as high as the risk of living with a smoker. The incidence of lung cancer in cities is twice that of rural areas.
Davis also shows that the benefits of the clean hydrogen economy will be enormous. There is the clear cost saving on healthcare given that by far the largest proportion of healthcare costs comes from treating cancer, heart disease and chronic illness. In 1970 Science magazine published evidence that cutting air pollution in the US in half would save $2 billion annually due to fewer sick days and premature deaths, and the resulting lower healthcare costs.
Since then, the quality of air has improved markedly in many cities. However, a recent air quality study by Davis and a number of colleagues targeting New York, Santiago, Mexico City and São Paulo revealed that thousands of premature deaths and millions of sick days can be prevented in those cities with the help of currently available technology. Davis estimates that over the coming decade, millions of deaths can be prevented worldwide.
It is worth the investment. It has been proven that every dollar invested in limiting air pollution saves $10 in healthcare costs. Davis bitterly complains that for the past 20 years the business community has fought tooth and nail against stricter regulations on air pollution. Continual delays to crucial legislation have been the result. ‘Those captains of industry who delayed adopting cleaner cars and energy plants probably never lost a night’s sleep over the thought that they had within their power the means of protecting millions of lives,’ she says.
Look at it another way: when it comes to the degree of threat, health issues related to air pollution beat global warming (see Argument 6) as a justification for the immediate implementation of the hydrogen economy.


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