Pol­lu­tion or How the ‘Take-make-dis­pose’ eco­nomic Model Does Kill

Trillions - - In this Issue - By Ba­her Ka­mal

The pre­vail­ing “Take-make-dis­pose” lin­ear eco­nomic model con­sist­ing of vo­ra­cious de­ple­tion of nat­u­ral re­sources in both pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion pat­terns has proved to be one of the world’s main killers due to the huge pol­lu­tion it causes for air, land and soil, ma­rine and fresh­wa­ter.

Just to have an idea, the UN World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO) es­ti­mates that nearly a quar­ter of all deaths world­wide, amount­ing to 12.6 mil­lion peo­ple in 2012, are due to pol­lu­tion, with at least 8.2 mil­lion at­trib­ut­able to non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble en­vi­ron­men­tal causes, and more than three quar­ters oc­cur­ring in just three re­gions.

As in most other pol­lu­tion-re­lated im­pacts, low- and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries –those who are among the least in­dus­tri­alised na­tions on Earth– bear the brunt of pol­lu­tion-re­lated ill­nesses, with a dis­pro­por­tion­ate im­pact on chil­dren.

The lat­est global and re­gional en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ments give an in­di­ca­tion of the mag­ni­tude of cur­rent threats: air pol­lu­tion; land and soil pol­lu­tion; fresh­wa­ter pol­lu­tion, and ma­rine and coastal pol­lu­tion. All this in ad­di­tion to cross­cut­ting causes such as chem­i­cals and waste, reports the UN En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gramme (UNEP).

As if the death of mil­lions of hu­mans ev­ery year due to hu­man-made pol­lu­tion were not enough, it also im­pacts the global econ­omy. The UN es­ti­mates that out­door air pol­lu­tion costs about 3 tril­lion dol­lars, while the cost of in­door pol­lu­tion reaches 2 tril­lion dol­lars a year.

Cli­mate change is also mod­i­fy­ing weather pat­terns, af­fect­ing the lev­els and oc­cur­rence of pollutants and air­borne al­ler­gens, such as ozone and pollen, and in some cases ex­pos­ing peo­ple to higher con­cen­tra­tions over longer pe­ri­ods than in pre­vi­ous decades, ac­cord­ing to UNEP’S re­port To­wards a Pol­lu­tion-free Planet.

The re­port pro­vides some key ex­am­ples: air qual­ity is a prob­lem in nearly all re­gions; wa­ter pol­lu­tion is a major cause of death of chil­dren un­der five years of age; nu­tri­ent over-en­rich­ment of land and wa­ter is caus­ing shifts in ecosys­tems and loss of bio­di­ver­sity; plas­tics in the ocean is on the rise and there is still no ac­cept­able “stor­age or dis­posal op­tion” for pro­cess­ing of older-gen­er­a­tion nu­clear fuel. See: World Cam­paign to Clean Tor­rents of Plas­tic Dumped in the Oceans

Here are some key de­tails re­gard­ing the major threats caused by the pre­vail­ing lin­ear eco­nomic model as sum­marised by UNEP’S To­wards a Pol­lu­tion Free Planet re­port:


Air pol­lu­tion is the world’s sin­gle great­est en­vi­ron­men­tal risk to health. Some 6.5 mil­lion peo­ple across the world die pre­ma­turely ev­ery year from ex­po­sure to out-door and in­door air, and nine out of ten peo­ple breathe out­door air pol­luted be­yond ac­cept­able World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion guide­lines lev­els.

WHO also reports that air pol­lu­tion dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fects the most vul­ner­a­ble, in­clud­ing those with men­tal dis­abil­i­ties and young chil­dren.

On this, the UN Chil­dren’s Fund (UNICEF) es­ti­mates that ap­prox­i­mately 2 bil­lion chil­dren live in ar­eas where out­door air pol­lu­tion ex­ceeds the guide­lines, and 300 mil­lion in ar­eas where out­door air pol­lu­tion is at least six times higher.

In ad­di­tion to the im­pact on hu­man health, other air pollutants cause cli­mate change and af­fect ecosys­tems, such as short-lived cli­mate pollutants in­clud­ing black car­bon and ground-level ozone, warns WHO.

The main sources of out­door air pol­lu­tion are fos­sil fuel emis­sions from coal burn­ing for power and heat, trans­port, in­dus­trial fur­naces, brick kilns, agri­cul­ture, do­mes­tic solid fuel heat­ing, and the un­reg­u­lated burn­ing of waste ma­te­ri­als such as plas­tics and bat­ter­ies in open pits and in­cin­er­a­tors, ac­cord­ing to UNEP’S re­port.

Other im­por­tant sources in­clude the burn­ing of peat­lands, both of which gen­er­ate haze, sand and dust storms, as well as de­ser­ti­fi­ca­tion, which of­ten re­sults from land degra­da­tion, in­clud­ing de­for­esta­tion and wet­land drainage.

The re­port says in­door air pol­lu­tion ac­counts for 4.3 mil­lion deaths, 18 per cent of is­chaemic heart dis­ease and 33 per cent of all lower res­pi­ra­tory in­fec­tions. It in par­tic­u­lar af­fects women, chil­dren, the sick and elderly, and those in low-in­come groups, as they are of­ten ex­posed to high lev­els of pollutants from cook­ing and heat­ing.

Land and Soil

“To­wards a Pol­lu­tion-fee Planet” also in­forms that land and soil pol­lu­tion is largely the prod­uct of poor agri­cul­tural prac­tices, in­ef­fi­cient ir­ri­ga­tion, im­proper solid waste man­age­ment – in­clud­ing un­safe stor­age of ob­so­lete stock­piles of hazardous chem­i­cals and nu­clear waste – and a range of in­dus­trial, mil­i­tary and ex­trac­tive ac­tiv­i­ties.

“Leachates from mis­man­aged land­fills and un­con­trolled dump­ing of waste from house­holds, in­dus­trial plants and mine tail­ings can con­tain heavy me­tals, such as mer­cury and ar­senic, as well as or­ganic com­pounds and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, in­clud­ing an­tibi­otics and micro­organ­isms.”

UNEP ex­plains that pollutants eas­ily de­grade land, soils and the un­der­ly­ing aquifers and are hard to re­move, thus hu­mans and wildlife liv­ing near for­mer in­dus­trial sites and some re­claimed lands are at po­ten­tial risk of con­tin­ued ex­po­sure to pol­lu­tion if sites are not de­con­tam­i­nated prop­erly.

The pri­mary pollutants of con­cern in land and soil in­clude heavy me­tals such as lead, mer­cury, ar­senic, cad­mium and chromium, per­sis­tent or­ganic pollutants and other pes­ti­cides, and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, such as an­tibi­otics used for live­stock man­age­ment, the re­port adds.

Glob­ally, es­ti­mates in­di­cate that at least 1 mil­lion peo­ple are un­in­ten­tion­ally poi­soned ev­ery year by ex­ces­sive ex­po­sure and in­ap­pro­pri­ate use of pes­ti­cides, with health ef­fects on all, ac­cord­ing to UNEP.

The main driver for the use of syn­thetic chem­i­cal pes­ti­cides is the re­duc­tion of the neg­a­tive im­pacts of pests, such as in­sects, dis­eases and weeds, on crop yields, es­ti­mated in the 1990s to ac­count for 40 per cent of the world’s losses, it in­forms.


The num­ber of women work­ing as pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tors varies, but in some coun­tries, women make up 85 per cent or more of the pes­ti­cide ap­pli­ca­tors on com­mer­cial farms and plan­ta­tions, of­ten work­ing while preg­nant or breast­feed­ing, says the re­port. Women are also uniquely ex­posed to pes­ti­cides even when they do not di­rectly ap­ply them.

Just a cou­ple of ex­am­ples: in Pak­istan, where cot­ton is picked by women, a sur­vey found that 100 per cent of the women pick­ing cot­ton 3-15 days after pes­ti­cides had been sprayed suf­fered acute pes­ti­cide poi­son­ing symp­toms. And in Chile, in 1997, of the 120 re­ported pes­ti­cide poi­son­ings, 110 were women, nearly all em­ployed in the lower in­dus­try.

Pes­ti­cide ex­po­sure can cause life­long harm and in­crease the risk of preterm births, birth de­fects, child­hood mor­tal­ity, re­duced sperm func­tion and a range of adult dis­eases, warns the re­port.

Oth­er­wise, the rise of an­timi­cro­bial re­sis­tance as a re­sult of overuse and im­proper use of an­timi­cro­bials, in­clud­ing an­tibi­otics used in food pro­duc­tion, is now a glob­ally sig­nif­i­cant is­sue. See: When Your Heal­ers Be­come Your Killers and What Do You Re­ally Eat When You Or­der a Steak, Fish or Chicken Filet?

A major con­cern is that this may cause rapid changes to the mi­cro­bial com­po­si­tion of soil, fresh­wa­ter and biota, and drive the de­vel­op­ment of multi-strain mi­cro­bial re­sis­tance world­wide, ac­cord­ing to the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FAO).


As if all tis were not suf­fi­cient, the To­wards a Pol­lu­tion-free Planet says that fresh­wa­ter bod­ies are heav­ily af­fected by pol­lu­tion, par­tic­u­larly by a range of nu­tri­ents, agro-chem­i­cals and pathogens from un­treated waste­water, and heavy me­tals from min­ing and in­dus­trial ef­flu­ents

More­over, pol­luted wa­ter is also more likely to host dis­ease vec­tors, such as cholera-caus­ing Vib­rio and par­a­sitic worm-trans­mit­ted bil­harzia.

An­other scary fact in the re­port is that over 80 per cent of the world’s waste­water is re­leased into the en­vi­ron­ment with­out treat­ment. Glob­ally, 58 per cent of di­ar­rhoeal dis­ease –a major driver of child mor­tal­ity– is due to a lack of ac­cess to clean wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion.

Th­ese are just some of the major con­se­quences of the cur­rent so-called lin­ear eco­nomic model, which per­haps should be rather known as the re­lent­less de­struc­tion of both nature… and hu­mans.

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