Low level air pollution costs the economy billions of dollars in lost productivity

Prof. Joshua Graff Zivin argues policy makers should be thinking of environmental protection as an investment in our economy.
At air pollution levels well below current regulatory standards in the U.S., researchers found impacts of air pollution on call centre work productivity. (Andrew Ross/AFP/Getty)
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Air pollution affects more than just our health

Air pollution delivers subtle effects that can have lasting negative impacts on our brain function, a new policy paper suggests.

We've known for some time that air pollution from vehicles or industry is associated with a host of health issues, everything from an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, to a worsening of respiratory issues, like asthma, and even death. 

According to the lead author of a new policy forum paper in the journal Science, those health issues are just the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Joshua Graff Zivin, a professor of economics in the School of Global Policy and Strategy and the Department of Economics at the University of California San Diego, says there are more subtle effects — a hidden cost to air pollution, we should also be considering. 

"What we're learning is that at severe levels, pollution clearly impacts respiratory and cardiovascular function," says Graff Zivin. "Those same impacts at more subtle levels simply impair our ability to do every day tasks. Of course, the brain is the largest or most oxygen organ in our body. And so, if pollution is impairing the oxygen that's being delivered to ourselves, it stands to reason that pollution could impact our brain function as well." 

What it's costing us

At air pollution levels well below current regulatory standards in the United States, Graff Zivin says they've found impacts of air pollution on agricultural, manufacturing, and call centre work productivity. 

If pollution is impairing the oxygen that's being delivered to ourselves, it stands to reason that pollution could impact our brain function as well.- Joshua Graff Zivin

There is also a new line of research where evidence is showing that exposure to low level air pollution to the fetus or in the first year of life when the brain is still developing, can have lasting negative cognitive impacts. "There are a range of studies now that have shown that even a short amount of exposure to modest levels of pollution in utero and the first year of life leads to demonstrable impacts on intellectual performance on standardized tests in middle school, in high school," says Graff Zivin. "We also find from other studies that we even see the imprints of that exposure 30 years later on the earnings of workers."

A range of studies suggest that exposure to modest levels of pollution in the womb and the first year of life leads to demonstrable impacts on intellectual performance on standardized tests. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty)

The bottom line

Contrary to popular belief that environmental regulation is a strain on economic activity and growth, Graff Zivin says policy makers should be thinking of environmental protection as an investment in our economy. 

"If you take the effects, for example, of light manufacturing that we've identified in a plant in northern California and we apply them to the manufacturing sector in the United States alone, and we think about — for example, we've seen great progress in fine particulate matter pollution abatement over the past decade or so. If we look at simply the reduction in ambient particulate matter levels from 1999 to 2008 and we think about what done for labour productivity, it's the equivalent of about 20 billion dollars a year in labour savings." 

Policy makers should be thinking of environmental protection as an investment in our economy, a researcher says. (Pixabay)

He says these patterns exist across all sectors and settings, but they'll need to do more research before they can determine how much this loss in productivity and cognitive abilities adds up to.