Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Choke on This

February 16th, 2010 · 2 Comments


There’s an old chestnut (of dubious veracity) about how more rock climbers perish in auto accidents to-and-from the cliffs than from accidental falls. We thought of that contrarian info-nugget this morning upon stumbling across some surprising morbidity news from Britain:

Last week, the House of Commons’s Environmental Audit Committee heard evidence that about 35,000 people – or 51,500, if you use the methodology devised by the European Topic Centre on Air and Climate Change – died prematurely in 2005 as a result of exposure to tiny airborne particles generated by traffic. Professor Frank Kelly, an environmental health expert at King’s College London, claimed that about 3,500 and possibly up to 8,000 deaths in London alone could be attributed to this kind of pollution.

At the same time, “only” 2,600 Britons lose their lives in vehicular wrecks each year, which makes tailpipe emissions a far more prolific killer than mere accidents.

Yet despite those ghoulish figures, why do we get the feeling that no great alarm will be sounded? The problem is that our brains naturally assign a higher fear value to violent deaths than those due to chronic illness, and so we allocate disproportionate resources to the smaller issue. On top of that, there is natural resistance to the high cost of reducing air-pollution deaths—because the cause and effect are not readily apparent to the casual observer, we tend not to view anti-pollution measures as critical lifesavers, and thus gripe over their price.

On a related note, we’ve long been trying to make heads or tails of this report on the economic toll of Manila’s nasty air. The estimate takes into account the lifetime earnings lost by victims of emissions, but it makes no mention of a big force pushing against the anti-pollution forces—namely, that industry can claim that stricter regulations will limit their growth, and thus their ability to create jobs and pay wages. Which brings up a big question: At what point does it become economically rational for a developing nation to implement air pollution controls?

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • captured shadow

    I am sure Britain is more sensitive to air problems ever since this event
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Smog

    Like traffic deaths, entirely preventable, but there is a certain cost.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Gotta love that high-sulfur coal…

    The cost-benefit on this is key. Actually seems like it would be relatively easy to shave off significant percentage of pollution-related deaths through a few major policy fixes. Getting those deaths close to zero, though, may incur more expense than the electorate is willing to bear–unless they were forced to watch 24/7 coverage of people dying from emphysema, which seems unlikely.

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