In the US, the cost of illnesses triggered by air pollution is falling

Living on Earth
Coal in West Virginia

Coal is stacked at the base of coal loaders along the Ohio River in Ceredo, West Virginia.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

In the endless tug-of-war between industry and regulators over air pollution, industry issues repeated warnings about the economic costs of regulation, but rarely mentions costs of pollution to society. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution causes 3.3 million premature deaths worldwide.

In the US, where more than 200 coal-fired power plants have been retired in recent years, data indicates that lowering the amounts of fine particle pollution is generating significant public health dividends and lowering the overall cost to society.

Paulina Jaramillo, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who studies the environmental impacts of energy systems, wondered if society could place an actual dollar amount on the savings created by improving air quality. She and a team of colleagues designed a model to find out.

The researchers plugged in pollution reports from the Environmental Protection Agency, weather models and population data. They took into account the effects of pollution on crops, forests and infrastructure — and human health. Much of that cost hinges on one basic number — a number with a somewhat disconcerting name: “value of a statistical life.”

The value of a statistical life (VSL) is a controversial technique, widely used in policy analyses, to estimate the amount of money we as a society are willing to spend to save one person’s life. According to the federal government, the current average VSL is around $6 million.

Jaramillo’s model showed that, since the early 2000s, as emissions from coal-fired power plants declined, the annual cost of pollution also declined, by about 25 percent, to $130 billion.

Jaramillo says the big changes came about for a couple of reasons: New regulations forced many coal-fired power plants to clean up, The Great Recession lowered energy demand for a few years and cleaner sources, like natural gas, have cut into coal’s share of the electricity market.

“Reducing these emissions reduced health impacts,” Jaramillo concludes. “These models cannot pinpoint who specifically benefitted, but on a population basis there are benefits.”

Jaramillo and her colleagues may not be able to pinpoint individuals who benefit from reduced emissions, but others can: emergency room doctors, for instance.

Arvind Venkat is an emergency physician at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. He says patients will often come in because of a cold or an allergic reaction, but the underlying causes often include other factors, including air pollution. Many patients suffer from allergies or viruses, but some sort of trigger requires them to seek acute care and pollution is a well-recognized trigger, Venkat says.

In addition, studies show that ER visits for heart and lung conditions increase on days when pollution is highest. At around $1,000 a visit, ER costs can add up quickly. Reducing air pollution helps eliminate one of the triggers that can cause or worsen health conditions, which, in turn reduces the overall costs to the medical system and to the larger society.

For Jaramillo, the takeaway is simple. “We need to continue regulating these emissions and putting controls on these emissions, because they have been effective,” she concludes.

This article is based on a report by Reid Frazier of the Pennsylvania public radio program, the Allegheny Front. The report aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.