Air Pollution Hurts Worker Productivity as Well as Lungs


Photo credit: Monika Thorpe via Flickr/CC BY

Whenever new and better pollution controls are proposed, defenders of the status quo are quick to argue that we can't afford them. Well, sure, they say -- we could make polluting industries clean up their acts, have them install cleaner technologies -- but it would be so damn expensive that it'd drag the economy down. And you don't want that, do you? We're made to believe that it's a choice: protect air quality and human health, or protect the economy. This is a false choice. Matt Yglesias points us to a new study, which finds that pollution reduces working productivity -- and acts as a drag on the economy:
We already know that emissions from coal plants and factories cause hundreds of billions of dollars of damage to the economy annually, in the form of health care costs (not to mention causing tens of thousands of deaths, respiratory illnesses, missed school and work days, and so forth). But it looks like the actual impact that air pollution has on worker productivity is quantifiable too.

The report, "The Impact of Pollution on Worker Productivity", from researchers Joshua S. Graff Zivin and Matthew J. Neidell, suggests the following:

Since a large body of evidence links pollution with poor health, and health is an important part of human capital, efforts to reduce pollution could plausibly be viewed as an investment in human capital and thus a tool for promoting economic growth ... We find robust evidence that ozone levels well below federal air quality standards have a significant impact on productivity: a 10 ppb decrease in ozone concentrations increases worker productivity by 4.2 percent.
The research focused on the daily productivity of farm workers exposed to different levels of pollution.

Again, the point here is that while a handful of companies whose profit margins are improved by being able to pollute may be hindered by air pollution controls, the economy at large sees substantial benefits from everybody else not having to breathe unhealthy air. It's a classic tragedy of the commons -- which is why we all need to stand firm and demand those stricter air pollution rules, for the good of the American public, no matter how industry and weasel-y politicians complain.

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