A new study quantified the effects of our consumer habits on particulate emissions around the world -- and the effects of these emissions on human health. Long story short: you may want to be more careful with what you're buying.
Air pollution is a big problem. Every year, exposure to fine particulate matter contributes to over 4 million deaths from heart disease and stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease, and respiratory infections. Most of these deaths are in developing countries, where pollution is associated with the production of consumer goods -- not just for the locals, but also for international markets.
"Among the many environmental problems affecting human health, the greatest threat is that posed by the inhalation of particles with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 μm or less, abbreviated to PM2.5", the new study explains.
Air pollution emissions (especially those in low-income countries) are often associated with the production of goods that are consumed in other, often high-income, countries. Recently, researchers have started taking a closer look at the health impacts of transboundary pollution transport (pollution created in one nation which then affects another nation) and trade-related emissions. However, these impacts are hard to quantify.
In particular, the impact of PM2.5 emissions is difficult to estimate, since some of this pollution comes from secondary particle formation, which forms within the atmosphere as a result of other emissions.
A team led by Keisuke Nansai, an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Nagoya University in Japan, was able to address this. They conducted a modeling study to quantify nation-to-nation consumer responsibility for global mortality due to primary and secondary PM2.5 particles. They focused on the impact of 19 of the 20 countries in G20, a group comprising 19 of the world's biggest countries and the European Union.
The researchers linked the trade and consumption of goods in G20 nations to PM2.5 exposure in 199 countries. They found that in 2010, consumption in G20 nations caused 1.983 million premature deaths at an average age of 67 years; 78,600 of these occurred in infants. Overall, the consumption of goods in the USA and ten other G20 nations induced over 50% of premature deaths associated with PM2.5 in other countries.
This means that we need to rethink how we treat the link between our consumption and pollution, Nansai told ZME Science.
"The most surprising part of this analysis is not the size of the number of premature deaths due to consumption, but the fact that in many developed countries the average age of premature deaths due to consumption basis is much lower than that of their own production basis. I believe this illustrates the value of national and corporate pollution prevention on a consumption basis in saving lives," the researcher explained.
We can all make a difference
The good thing about these findings is that we can all make a difference. The important thing, Nansai explains, is that it's important to build awareness on the issue and incorporate it into our education. We're all interconnected in the world, and it's important to be aware of this.
"It is essential to know that there are people on the other side of the world who can only breathe air with a high risk of death. And I believe that understanding how we relate to that problem and empathizing with that problem is a critical element in changing our behavior. In this respect, I think it is a significant role of science to show the impact of shadow emissions in numbers," the researcher tells ZME Science.
"Rather than a boom in people' s interest, it needs to take root. I think it is vital that science curricula in primary and secondary schools develop an understanding that the world's environmental problems are connected as a system, that is, that they have a life-cycle thinking."
Another important piece of the puzzle is pushing producers and sellers to become more transparent and disclose the environmental
"When choosing a company or a product, consumers should pay attention to whether the company manages the environment throughout its life cycle. One of the most important actions is to require companies to disclose their environmental management throughout the supply chain."
The study "Consumption in the G20 nations causes particulate air pollution resulting in two million premature deaths annually" was published in Nature Communications.