November 19, 2017

The cost of pollution

How much money must be spent on pollution control? Are governments likely to make the necessary funds available? Even if they do, will this provide a complete solution to the pollution problem or will it only enable us to gain time?

In this article the author attempts to answer these essential questions.

From The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 15—this is an alternative version of Chapter 17 of the book Can Britain Survive?, published by Tom Stacey, London, 1971.

In what way does pollution affect the country as a whole? What is its total cost to us? This is difficult to answer as no one has really defined the term “cost”. It normally refers to “economic” cost, i.e. to cost that can be measured in terms of the units of measurement used by economists. But are these the right units of measurement? One cannot, for instance, measure social and ecological costs in these terms; at least, not until they begin to affect economic life. This of course they must do in the long run, and perhaps one can take them into account by referring to them as “delayed economic costs”.

Thus, for over 150 years, industrial waste has been poured into the air, rivers and seas, without any apparent adverse effect on our economy, so much so that it is assumed by many people that the world’s capacity for absorbing waste products is infinite. Unfortunately, this is not so. The environment can absorb a finite amount of different wastes; beyond that these tend to accumulate so that even if the annual amount disposed of was constant, which as we know is not the case, the total amount in the environment would be increasing more or less exponentially, depending on their persistence.

Also there must be thresholds beyond which levels for different pollutants become lethal. Before these thresholds are reached, the effects are not easily observable. This does not mean that biological damage is not being done, but that it will only be translated into economic costs once it has led to a reduction in economic activity.

The reason why there has been this sudden interest in pollution is that many of these thresholds are now being reached and pollution is beginning to affect our economy.

There appear to be few satisfactory studies of the cost of pollution to our society. However, in the US Lester B. Lave and Eugene Seskin of the Carnegie-Mellon University estimate that roughly 25 per cent of all respiratory disease is associated with air pollution. This means that the cost of air pollution to health in the US was about $2 billion in 1963, the last year for which usable data is available.

Ailing shrubbery

Professor Thomas D. Crocker (1) of the University of Wisconsin and Professor Robert J. Anderson Junior of the University of Purdue have estimated that an increase in air pollution of from 5 to 15 per cent reflected in off-colour paint, ailing shrubbery, sooty surfaces and unpleasant odours, takes $300 to $700 off the value of a house. On this basis air pollution in 1965 was costing America $621 million in reduced property values.

The Beaver Committee Report put the cost of air pollution in Britain on our health and property at £350 million. This was 16 years ago, and it was probably even then a conservative estimate.

Gerald H. Michael, Assistant Surgeon General, has calculated that the 173 million tons of contaminants ejected annually into the atmosphere in the US cost Americans $10-20 billion a year in medical bills and cleaning bills.

According to the National Air Pollution Control Administration, the figure is between $14 and $19 million. (2)

The harm done by sulphur dioxide alone to crops in the US has been estimated at more than $500 million a year.

The damage done by the countless poisons we pour into rivers and seas in terms of reduced fish catches must also be colossal, and can only go on increasing. Mercury alone has been considered responsible for an annual billion’s worth of damage world-wide.

Representative James Murphy of Staten Island, member of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, asserts that pollution in general costs the US more than $30 billion a year and predicts that this figure will rise to 60 billion by 1980.

From these terrifying figures, it must be apparent that pollution control is not the luxury many people think it is. To refuse, for economic or political reasons, to install pollution control equipment is not to save money, again as many people think, but simply to pay the cost of pollution in a different currency: in reduced plant yields in larger cleaning bills, in higher medical costs etc.

Also the amount of money spent on pollution control has up till now been but a minute fraction of total pollution costs. In Britain the £32 million spent in air pollution control is less than an eleventh of total cost as estimated by the Beaver Committee. In the US the $10 billion that President Nixon proposes to spend over the next four years (assuming it is in fact spent, which is by no means sure) is also but a fraction of what it would really cost to clean up that country’s polluted environment. Let us briefly examine what this is likely to be.

The cost of eliminating water pollution depends primarily on the degree of cleanliness we seek to achieve.

As urbanisation progresses, the amount of sewage requiring secondary treatment must increase. In the US by 1973, according to the Federal Water Pollution Control Agency, 90 per cent of the urban population will need secondary sewage systems. (2)

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Water treatment

According to the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration, this would require over $8 billion in water treatment plants (exclusive of lands costs) and over $6 billion in sewers. Secondary treatment of industrial wastes will cost another $5 billion in construction. To separate storm and household sewers could cost anywhere from $10 billion to $48 billion and to control thermal pollution will cost yet another $2 billion. In addition, operating costs for all these facilities would be almost $2 billion for the municipal plants, $3.5 billion for the industrial plants and about $1 billion for the thermal processes. (2)

If America really wants to have clean water and decides to build tertiary treatment plants, then the construction costs would jump from $31 billion to about $90 billion. This figure is not far off Professor Barry Commoner’s estimate of $100 billion to clean up US rivers.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration estimates that between 26 and 29 billion dollars will have to be spent between 1969 and 1973. (2) A National Survey in July estimated that between $33 and $37 billion will have to be spent within the next six years.

In Britain, there is no estimate of the cost of fighting water pollution. We have 20,000 miles of rivers of which 5,000 are polluted and 2,000 grossly polluted. According to Mr Anthony Crosland, it would cost £30 million to clean up four miles of the River Tyne, but this is a particularly bad stretch. The Jeger Report estimates that the GLC must spend £1 million on cleaning up the Thames Estuary.

Teesside Borough Council has calculated that £22 million are needed just to clean up the River Tees over 10 to 12 years, £500 million has been estimated as the sum required to bring 1,000 miles of grossly polluted British rivers just to tolerable standards. (3)

According to the Jeger Report, 3,000 of our 5,000 sewage works are at the moment overloaded and produce effluent below the quality associated with secondary treatment. Mr Craig Sinclair of Sussex University estimates that £260,000 a year must be spent on sewage works which is twice what is spent at the moment. (3)

Estimates of the cost of controlling air pollution are even more difficult.

According to Professor Goldman, they range in the US from $300 million to $3 billion a year simply for construction costs. In the latter case, this would mean capital expenditure of a little less than $100 billion by the year 2000. This only covers emissions from stationary sources. Air pollution from motor cars is an even more serious problem and in many US cities motor vehicles are responsible for as much as 80 per cent of it. According to Professor Goldman, controlling air pollution from cars might add up to another $2 to $3 billion a year. A recent survey suggests a figure of $400 per car or a total of $40 billion.

Dr Ernest Starkman, Chairman of the Technical Advisory Committee of the California Air Resources Board, asserts that if air pollution were to be cut down to “levels that would keep the atmosphere clean”, one would have to expend an extra $1,000 per motor car or approximately $100 billion if every one of the cars at present in use in the USA were appropriately equipped.

The actual cost clearly depends on what percentage of total pollution one wishes to eliminate. It is important to realise that we can never get rid of all of it. As Professor Goldman writes, “Institution of $100 billion worth of air quality controls would not mean the elimination of all air pollution nor of the costs that arise from it, but it would considerably reduce the cost of air pollution in terms of medical bills and cleaning bills and help defray the costs of operating expenses.”

In Britain, up till now there has been practically no legislation to reduce pollution from motor cars as it has been considered too expensive. The recent reports of the Royal College of Physicians on air pollution and health, has revealed that the savings are largely illusory.

Nevertheless in order to justify the Government’s short-sightedness, the Government’s official position has been that there is no evidence that air pollution is bad for people at least at existing levels.

Recently, there seems to have been a radical change of policy as Mr Peter Walker announced very firmly on December 1st 1970 that the Government intends to introduce very strict measures to control pollution from the exhausts of motor cars.

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Measures to reduce lead

One can also expect in the US and eventually here measures to reduce lead pollution of the air which we know to have a very serious effect on human health. According to the Ethyl Corporation, these additives save the US 215 million barrels of oil each year. The cost of this extra oil consumption would amount to at least $3 billion for the public to pay each year and $6 billion to be met by the oil companies. If octane ratings are to be maintained, then further changes are required which will probably give rise to other forms of pollution and hence require further costly controls. (4)

In the UK Lord Rothschild, head of the Government’s new Capability Unit recently said that the exhaust from cars could be purified at a cost of an extra £50 to £100 per car, while £5 to £10 would be required to get rid of the lead.

According to Geoffrey Charles, Americans have already spent $10 billion on anti-pollution devices for their cars and it is estimated that they will have to spend another $15 billion. (5) Businesses must undoubtedly foot a considerable part of the bill as the principle that businesses must pay for the disposal of their own waste is rapidly becoming accepted both by Government and industry.

In the US businesses spent an estimated $1.5 billion to control air and water pollution created by them, which is an increase of 40 per cent over the previous year. The National Industrial Conference Board estimates that investments to control air and water pollution rose from two per cent of manufacturer’s capital outlay in 1967 to close to four per cent in 1968. A good number of companies questioned by Fortune report that they are spending 10 per cent of capital outlays, and in extreme cases the figure was 30 per cent. (6)

In Japan where public awareness of pollution is of recent origin, already five per cent of capital expenditure, according to a recent Ministry of International Trade and Industry Report, is devoted to pollution control equipment, while in the chemical industry, the figure is closer to 12 per cent. These figures are increasing every year and must continue to do so at an ever greater rate.

The chemical industry is among the most affected by pollution control problems. It is producing an ever wider range of chemicals which are ending up in our rivers and hence in our water supply. The Institute of Water Engineers in a recent report warned that, as a result, our water supply is in a precarious position. Many of the chemicals cannot be identified, let alone filtered out. Clearly very tight controls will have to be imposed. Pollution of water supplies with detergents, insecticides and artificial fertilisers is also becoming a matter of national concern and it is but a matter of time before controls are adopted that will seriously reduce the profitability of the industries producing them. In the meantime the major chemical companies are planning large increases in their expenditure on pollution control.

The steel industry is also vulnerable. In the US, it is estimated to use eight billion gallons of water per day for cooling and other purposes and causes extremely serious pollution to waterways.

The cost of controlling pollution from power stations must also increase very radically.

The cost of controlling pollution of the seas may be highest of all. Practically all our waste products end up in the seas, and they cannot absorb it all indefinitely. Strict measures will undoubtedly soon have to be taken to curb oil pollution by tankers. Nuclear power stations will have to find ways of reducing levels of radioactive waste at present ejected into the seas. Pesticide levels will have to be reduced which simply means that farmers will have to use less of these poisons, though this may in the long run represent a saving both in expenditure and crop yields. There will also have to be a limit to the amount of solid waste indiscriminately tipped into the seas.

According to the Report of the Study of Critical Environment Problems, approximately 73 million metric tons of solid wastes are tipped into the seas annually. The estimated world discharge is probably 150-220 million metric tons per year.

Gaylord Nelson estimates that in the US the total cost of controlling all the different types of pollution will be between $25 and $30 billion a year. “No administration has understood the size of the issue. It is much more important than space programmes, weapons systems or the money we are wasting in Vietnam.”

Professor Goldman estimates that the cost of controlling air and water and solid waste pollution will be between $130 and $180 billion in construction costs, and will involve between $ 12 and $18 billion in annual operating costs. These amount to approximately one to two per cent of the annual Gross National Product (GNP) and to four to seven per cent of the value of industrial, agricultural, mining and transportation output. This only includes the cost of secondary sewage plants. If tertiary sewage plants are installed, then construction costs go up to $200 billion. (2)

This figure does not include construction costs involved in reducing pollution from motor-cars or aeroplanes, nor any undertaken to reduce noise pollution or pollution of the seas, save by improving the quality of effluent to our rivers. Estimates for a more comprehensive programme of pollution control would thus be considerably higher.

How important is it that this money be spent? There are two ways of looking at it. Firstly, pollution control must not tend only to reduce the short-term economic costs but also long-term or delayed economic ones, i.e. long-term social and ecological costs. From this point of view money spent on pollution control will have a far more beneficial effect than might be supposed. On the other hand pollution control can be regarded as maintaining or restoring those conditions that will permit further demographic and economic growth. As such, it is too a means of suppressing some of the more noxious symptoms of these processes which can only serve to render them more tolerable and contribute thereby to their perpetuation. In this way pollution control will favour the continued depletion of our natural resources, the disintegration of society and other calamities brought about by continued growth.

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No technological solution

It is also essential to realise that a large amount of pollution can only be controlled by cutting down on economic activity.

How else for instance can heat from the combustion of fossil fuels be reduced? Clearly, only by cutting down on power consumption.

How can the damage done by agricultural chemicals be controlled? Only by closing down the factories that produce them or persuading them to produce something else, and at the same time returning to sounder methods of husbandry that do not require them.

This must mean reducing economic activity which implies more costs to our economy.

In reality, no pollutants can be controlled save in the very short-term.

This is evident from the following consideration:

Let us suppose that we succeeded in reducing world pollution levels by 80 per cent –

  • Total “ecological demand” or World GDP is increasing at a rate of six percent (according to the UN Statistical Yearbook)
  • This means that it is doubling every 13½ years
  • Thus, in 27 years it will have quadrupled, and we would be back to the same pollution levels that we started off with

Pollution control in other words cannot by itself provide a solution to the environmental crises. It is but a short-term expedient, a useful, indeed a necessary one so long as we realise that it is basically only a means of gaining time and can only be of long-term usefulness if this time is used for what are the only really effective measures, i.e., reducing demographic and economic growth. Meanwhile, let us try to predict how the cost of pollution will be affected by developments in the next few decades. Firstly, one must realise that pollutants over and above that level that can be absorbed by our environment tend to accumulate. This means that even if they are being generated at a constant rate, the total amount in the environment will increase by something approaching compound interest, depending on their persistence. Unfortunately, since the amount generated is roughly a function of economic activity, so a growing economy will mean a still greater rate of pollutant accumulation.

As already mentioned, it is important to realise that the effect of pollutants on biological organisms is unlikely to be linear. There are likely to be thresholds below which concentrations have but sub-lethal long-term effects but above which serious biological damage becomes apparent. When these thresholds are reached, observable and measurable damage to crops, wildlife and humans will start soaring.

It is more likely that within the next 30 years, many such thresholds will be reached; for instance, many marine organisms such as shell fish tend to concentrate pollutants; radio-isotopes such as iodine-131, heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury etc. It is probable that further pollution of this sort will begin killing them off in appreciable quantities and also seriously to affect the health of those who eat them. We have already had the terrifying example of 70 people dying in excruciating agony at Minimata from eating mercury-polluted fish.

With oil transported across the seas trebling every ten years, interest in the long-term sub-lethal effects of oil pollution has increased. Dr Max Blumer in the US and Dr George in the UK have pointed to its very serious nature. It is possible that in the next decades the accumulated effects of oil pollution will become very costly in terms of fish resources.

The levels of pesticides in marine organisms, birds, and in our rain water is also on the increase—not surprisingly as pesticides in the US are a $450 million business, (7) and in the UK £20 million worth are sold, an amount that is increasing at six per cent per annum. It must be but a question of time before these levels are no longer tolerated and start taking their toll in human lives.

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As little as possible

I think that one can take it as axiomatic that governments and businesses will spend as little on pollution control as they can possibly get away with. Conservationist pressure can force their hand to a certain extent. Political and economic necessity however must be the ultimate determinant of the amount of money spent on pollution control.

Thus DDT was banned for two years in Sweden only when herrings were found to contain higher than permissible levels of this poison, which rendered them unsaleable.

In Britain the Clean Air Act was passed only after 3,000 people had died from the effects of smog in the winter of 1952.

In Northern Italy, at the moment, businesses are spending a lot of money on water pollution control equipment and advertising the fact in the popular press to show just how socially responsible they are. The fact is that they are running out of usable water and their choice is either to spend the money or close down.

Situations of this sort are likely to occur more and more. For instance, in Japan, pollution is so bad that in certain industrial areas, further expansion is no longer viable. Manufacturers are getting round this by setting up manufacturing facilities in other countries, at the moment, mainly in South East Asia, though some are apparently looking round for suitable sites in Europe.

We have here a totally new phenomenon, “Industrial Nomadism”. Manufacturers pollute an area until it is incapable of supporting further industrial growth and then move off to another one.

The trouble is that growing, social and ecological problems will tend to make economic imperialism ever less easy. As problems multiply, foreigners are bound to be singled out as responsible for a country’s growing ills and discriminated against as nationalism grows. In the next few decades one can undoubtedly expect more and more foreign firms to be nationalised in developing countries, and more and more protectionist legislation proposed.

Japan and other industrial countries that will soon find themselves in a similar plight will thereby be forced to spend ever greater sums on pollution control to permit economic growth and eventually simply to maintain existing output.

One of the beneficial effects of the growing shortage of raw materials must be the increased profitability of re-cycling waste. Take the example of sulphur dioxide. Monsanto has developed of means of re-cycling it and providing sulphur at £30 a ton which is just about twice the world price. A shortage will clearly make this re-cycling possible.

In the USA approximately 23 million tons of sulphur dioxide are discarded into the air each year, in the UK approximately six million tons. This could provide five million tons of sulphur or 15 million tons of sulphuric acid in the US and about a quarter of this in the UK. It will soon be impossible to waste this precious material, and when that day comes, the huge cost to plants, animals, human health and buildings will be avoided simply because it will be profitable to do so.

The development of ever more efficient re-cycling methods will tend to have a similar effect. Also, as Sanford Rose writes, “Once society, by one means or another, begins charging rent for the use of the environment’s capacity to absorb wastes, engineers will have to think about pollution control as an integral part of plant design rather than as an afterthought. A lot more research funds will be allocated to pollution control, and costs may go down faster than anyone expects.”

On the other hand, the amount spent on pollution control must increase as scientific research reveals the ever greater damage done by different pollutants to biological organisms and in particular to human health.

Things considered harmless are slowly becoming incriminated as research progresses. It is in fact gradually becoming revealed to scientists who should already know it that man has developed phylogenetically as an adaptive response to much more specific environmental conditions than we think, and that any undue modification of these conditions will affect him adversely.

Take sulphur dioxide; there is as yet no legislation calling for its control. Yet we know of its adverse effects on plant growth and we learn from Dr Robert Shapiro that it has a significant mutagenic effect, and can thereby cause infant malformations and probably cancer. It seems probable, Shapiro writes “that sulphur dioxide constitutes a genetic hazard to living organisms.” (8)

Research on the effect of radioactivity on biological organisms is constantly leading to further reductions in permissible levels. Recently, Doctors Tam-plin and Goffman (9) of the AEC have provided evidence to show that the effects of low radiation levels is much more dangerous than we have so far assumed. They recommend a tenfold reduction in permissible levels. If these recommendations were adopted the effect on the nuclear power industry would be disastrous.

One reaction was that it would simply put America out of business.

Clearly, as research continues to reveal more and more adverse effects of pollution, so standards of pollution control will have to be increased as will the costs involved.

How are these likely to affect our economy? Clearly, it must tend to reduce economic activity and hence our material standard of living.

To the extent that our society is geared to continued economic growth, it might also give rise to radical social changes.

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The second report of the Council on Environmental Quality has just appeared (6 August 1971). Its Chairman, Mr Russell Train, maintains that the US is making “substantial progress” in its fight against pollution.

“Our report shows that in the air over our cities the levels of sulphur oxides is going down. The use of persistent pesticides is declining and ocean dumping has fallen considerably.”

Mr Train notes, however, that the total level of emissions in the air over America is going up because of economic and industrial growth. The level of pollutants in the nation’s waterways on the other hand appears to be constant.

He warns, however, that noise pollution is worsening and the degradation of the land—primarily the result of “urban sprawl”—is also getting worse. “This is why we have legislation in support of a national urban land policy before Congress.”

The latest environmental report estimates that total cumulative expenditures for air, water and solid waste pollution control in the 1970-75 period will be $105.2 billion—$38 billion for water clean-up, $23.7 billion to cleanse the air and $43.5 billion for solid waste handling and disposal . . . $525 for each American.

The current damage done ,by air pollution amounts to some $16 billion a year, or $80 per person in terms of damage to health, vegetation, materials and property.

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1. Rose, Sanford. 1970. The economics of environmental quality. In The Environment (ed. Fortune Magazine). New York: Harper & Row.

2. Goldman, Marshall I. 1970. The costs of fighting pollution. In Current History, August.

3. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 1970. December.

4. Chemical Week. 1969. Vol. 105, p. 71.

5. The Times. 1970. 10 December.

6. Davenport, John. 1970. Industry starts a big clean-up. In The Environment (ed. Fortune Magazine). New York: Harper & Row.

7. Headley and Kneese, A. V. 1970. Economic implications of pesticide use. In Annals of the New York Academy of Science.

8. Journal of the American Chemical Society. 1970. 28 June.

9. Goffman, John and Arthur Tamplin, 1970. Radiation: The invisible casualties. In Environment, 12 (3).

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