Pollution, public health and transparency

Last month the Lancet, an authoritative and prestigious medical journal, reported on air pollution in China. It noted that pollution-related illnesses have become so common in the capital that “Beijing cough” –  a condescending phrase first used by Western expatriates – is now a commonplace in local speech. In fact smog in the capital has now become so bad that the air monitoring system for the US Embassy in Beijing recently recorded a 24 hour level of pollution — for the most harmful airborne pollutants, those small enough to penetrate deeply into the lungs and enter the bloodstream — more than 20 times higher than the acceptable limit established by the World Health Organization.

The consequences of chronic exposure to such a miasma are not hard to imagine. The Lancet reports that official statistics from China’s Health Ministry showed a quadrupling of lung cancer cases between 1973 and 2005. It further calculated that air pollution is the probable cause of an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths and will cost China’s current population more than 25 million man-years.

China is also wrestling with an increasingly alarming outbreak of swine flu. To date some 20,000 pigs have washed up on the shores of rivers in Shanghai, many of them dumped there by small farmers who don’t want to pay fines for infected animals and won’t get enough compensation for  diseased livestock. Instead many farmers have tried to slaughter sick or even dead animals and sell the meat to recoup their losses. The lack of robust enforcement for public health measures, and China’s general lack of transparency, have meant that it remains unclear whether tainted meat has already entered the food supply. Official reluctance to say whether three recent deaths may be due to an animal borne virus has also raised fears that another costly pandemic may be underway. (A decade ago SARS cost an estimated US$50 billion).

China’s dysfunctions may be more consequential than most — certainly they can be dispersed faster given its unique centrality in the global economy – but they are hardly unique. In Peru, for example, the government has just declared a state of emergency due to oil pollution in the Patanza basin after years of ignoring complaints from locals. Leaking oil pipelines have caused extensive environmental harm. Rivers have been poisoned and oil seepage has turned parts of the landscape into a marshy wasteland. A foreign oil company will pay for the cleanup costs, but that is small consolation for the irreversible damage that has already taken place.

Even in the United States serious public health and environmental issues often receive short shrift. The environmental activist Bill McKibben recently blogged about the unacknowledged risks posed by the leakage of methane from natural gas pipelines. (In New York alone ConEdison’s network, which is more than a century old, spans more than 4,000 miles.) McKibben writes that while natural gas has been sold as “clean” energy – it has half the carbon footprint of traditional alternatives – unburned methane is a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more destructive than carbon dioxide. Since leaks resulting from fracking may run as high as nine per cent, there are now serious doubts about the revolution in clean energy may prove to be a costly illusion. McKibben warns that  “the carbon reduction achieved during the Obama administration-supported natural gas boom may be a Pyrrhic victory—or perhaps a better metaphor is a fad diet that cuts weight quickly, but only for a short time, and at the expense of the long-term changes in energy consumption we need to give ourselves a real chance at a healthy future.”

Nobody in Guyana needs a reminder of the potential perils of poisoned rivers, environmental damage or public health scares. But it is  worth noticing that in each of these cases officialdom tends to downplay the potential harm of an emerging threat. Pollution and public health are always sensitive political issues and bureaucrats and public officials have an understandable tendency to avoid speaking about risks that jeopardize investment or unsettle public confidence. What distinguishes one country from another is not the venality of its administrators, or their penchant for avoiding harsh truths, but the willingness of the media, environmental groups and civic society to establish the truth of the matter independently and to hold their governments to account.