The Lancet Commission on pollution and health have published their report. Report was wildly publicised. Since it deals with an important issue I wanted to have a look. Oh no! was my first thought as I read all the way down to the first author Philip Landrigan.  He has published anti-GMO fear mongering with the infamous organic industry lobbyist Charles Benbrooke. Since there is a broad scientific consensus that risks from GMO:s are similar or smaller than from other types of breeding, this is somewhat of a red flag for me. But nevermind…let us proceed and hope the report focuses on the important issues and does not stray into western chemophobes pet projects.

The 1st figure summarizes the death toll from pollution. Whether indoor pollution (from bioenergy mostly) or outdoor particulate matter kills the most depends on whom you ask, but both together are estimated to kill about 6.5 million people every year. Dirty water and poor sanitation (not chemicals) also kill around million or two depending on whom you ask. This is terrible.

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Biomass burning, dirty water, and particulate matter in the outdoor air are the biggest pollution killers. Of the outdoor pollution substantial part is again from the biomass burning together with transport, coal power plants etc.

However reading the media about the report might have left me in the dark as to the main culprits. For example, here is how Landrigan choose to represent the results in CNN.

Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, co-leader of the commission, said the problem is chemicals. “There are thousands of chemicals out there and we know that people are exposed to them,” said Landrigan. “We just didn’t know enough about what chemicals are doing to people.”“: CNN
No, sorry. Chemicals might on occasion be a problem, but the heavy hitters are bioenergy,  dirty water, shitty cars, and dirty powerplants in poor and developing countries. It is right there in your report.
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Pollution especially likely to kill you if you live in a poor country. Better get rich…except that is not quite the message the commission wants you to hear.

As I read the report itself I got a very clear impression that authors did not really want to discuss most deaths which occur due to poverty.  These are by-passed with a casual remark about how these deaths “…are slowly declining” after which authors choose to focus on other things. On stuff that for sure titillate the wealthy chemophobes in the west, but have relatively minor impact in the real world. (Only on page 30 is there one paragraph actually acknowledging the connection between poverty and pollution.) They even make their desire to focus on other things explicit:
The aim of this Lancet Commission on pollution and health is to end the neglect of pollution, especially of the modern forms of pollution, in low-income and middle income countries, to focus the world’s attention onto the silent threat of pollution-related disease, and to mobilise the national and international resources and the political will needed to effectively confront pollution.
Authors frame pollution as the nemesis of economic growth. Fine…people might become richer in some superficial and material sense, but they die and suffer…especially innocent ones! Cities are growing uncontrollably, traditional lifestyles abandoned, rich countries build polluting factories to poor countries…so tragic!  This narrative is not altogether surprising since it has infected the minds of large segments of environmental and development communities for decades. I sometimes get the feeling that the only economic development where poor country goes to sleep in the evening and wakes up as Norway in the morning is acceptable. The largely unreported fact is nevertheless that people tend to have higher life-expectancy in regions of high economic growth. The situation is often terrible by our standards, but compared to the alternative of staying stuck in subsistence farming it is an improvement. People flocking to the cities are not mindless idiots who have no clue what is good for them. The positive opportunities created by economic growth, outweigh the drawbacks for them. (This is not to say, that fossil fuel based growth would not create problems later on. Simply that the poorest people are better off being prosperous and screwed by climate change than being poor and screwed by climate change.)
UrnaRural

If you wish to live longer, move to the city. Ignore commissions complaint about “the uncontrolled growth of cities”. It is your life and you should have agency over it. (Results are similar in many other developing regions as well. Google it, if you don’t believe me.)

Happiness

People in cities seem happier. Those bastards! But they are really crying inside!

So how has the body count developed in the past decades? Next figure from the report illustrates this. Number of deaths has remained roughly stable. However, at the same time population has increased by about 50%, so your actual risk of dying from pollution has in fact declined dramatically. This tidbit of information would have been useful to mention, but strangely enough authors decided to skip it. Presumably it didn’t fit the choosen narrative.

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Translation: “Your risk of death from pollution has reduced dramatically since 1990″…except that this is not the message commission wished to tell.

Then there is this weird graph…the real deaths which the report discusses are all in the “Zone 1”. Authors decided to make this as “the tip of the iceberg” with two very large zones below it. These zones are authors speculative deaths for the stuff that they are clearly most interested in… chemicals, pesticides… For these speculative zones they give no body counts, but clearly wish to insinuate that they are huge. This must be nonsense since if they were larger than regular causes of pollution deaths, we would for sure know about it. In fact even  “Pure Earth” NGO which was partly responsible for writing the Lancet report puts the body count of (unintentional) pesticide poisoning at about 20000 on their own web page. This is 20000 too many, but still pales in comparison to millions killed by other causes.

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“The pollutome”: Only Zone 1 is grounded on data. Zones 2 and 3 titillating speculation and fear mongering with no numbers. Behind the scenes, numbers suggest deaths in zones 2 and 3 are way smaller than in zone 1.

Instead of Zone 1 being the tip of the iceberg, is it not way more likely and supported by evidence that it is in fact the bottom of the iceberg? The actual “Pollutome” looks like this…

 

Pollutome_fixed2

Fixed it! This way it is easier to focus on the most relevant things.

But of course if you present things like this, it is harder to shift the focus to chemicals, pesticides, endocrine disruptors, nanomaterials…and glyphosate. Oh dear. Authors actually choose to fearmonger also about glyphosate:

On the basis of these findings, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen”; this finding is contested by glyphosate’s manufacturer

FacepalmThey rely on largely discredited IARC report which was riddled with conflicts of interests and highly dubious scientific practices. As for “contested by glyphosate’s manufacturer“…really…no one else? Are there really no experts on risk assessment and toxicology who think IARC work is nonsense? Why did you choose to omit all discusion on this? Is there only one manufacturer or did you just insert a dog whistle for your intended target audience? I really hoped more from this report.

Update 25.10.2017: Greenpeace kindly provided another example of environmentalist battling imaginary issues while inflating them to insanity. Asbestos actually kills more than 100000 a year and glyphosate almost no one. Heroically Greepeace goes into attack. After all if they  do nothing consequences will undoubtedly be ass dire as from the battle of Blackwater bay. 

 

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