The impacts of clean air extend beyond our health: Economists say air pollution costs us real money

Keeping air pollution at bay is an expensive affair. Many entities in the United States’ business community opposed the passing of the Clean Air Act of 1970. The need for upgrades and updates in both equipment and policies, as well as the limits imposed by the law, cost time, money, and opportunities for growth, they said. A growing number of economists and health experts, however, say this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, cleaner air pays back in terms of improvements in productivity, among other benefits.

A number of studies indicate that air pollution can have a bigger effect than previously thought, even when it fell well within regulatory standards. Joshua Graff Zivin, professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, and Matthew Neidell, associate professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, reported in 2012 the impact of air pollution on the productivity of grape and blueberry pickers in California. The workers’ productivity increased by 5.5 percent when ozone exposure decreased by 10 parts per billion to a level lower than mandated by the federal air quality standard.

In 2014, they again found that the presence of particulate matter, a common air pollutant, affected the earnings of people who picked pears in Northern California, who were paid depending on the number of pears they picked. The researchers observed lower earnings by US$1.88 per hour when the level of fine particulate matter exceeded 25 micrograms per cubic meter (mcg/m3). Interestingly, this is still way below the accepted standard, which is at 35 mcg/m3.

That the state of air pollution will have an effect on workers who are exposed to the outside environment is not surprising, of course. The outcome of their study on Chinese call center agents was.

In 2016, they looked into the performance of employees from two call centers in China, all of whom worked in a fully enclosed office. They found that at times when the outdoor air quality was what the EPA would rate as “good,” the workers were five percent more productive. This was compared to days when the outside air quality was rated “unhealthy.”

Despite the 2016 test being done in China, Graff Zivin insists the results could be universal. “There’s nothing special about call center work in China. We worked on China because that’s where we could get the data. If it matters there, it should matter everywhere,” he said.

And he has a point. Over the last few years, air pollution in China has been recognized among the worst in the world. For almost all of 2017, the average air quality index (AQI) in Beijing, the capital, fluctuated more or less within the “unhealthy” range. The country also had 1.1 million air pollution-related deaths in 2015, a statistic it shares with India.

Air pollution and education

Some studies have gone further and looked into the effects of air pollution on education. One such research linked air pollution to higher school absences, while another connected pollution with slower cognitive learning.

There are three ways air pollution can have an impact on education:

  • Air pollution means the brain, where much of the body’s oxygen supply goes, is not supplied with enough oxygen.
  • Air pollutants appear to have an effect on the development of the brain in children.
  • Pollutants in the air may cause symptoms, such as eye irritation or asthma, that prevent children from functioning at their best in school.

Alberto Salvo, an economist at the National University of Singapore and his colleague Haoming Liu examined three international schools in China where the children of expats usually go. They found that during spikes in air pollution, students were slightly more likely to be absent.

Salvo explained that the problem with air pollution could have two implications. In terms of economics, it could prevent people from considering working overseas as air pollution may pose a risk to their family members’ health.

Then, it could imply an issue with equity. International school students often come from high-income families who are well aware of the dangers of air pollution. They also have actual means to keep their children safe from air pollutants. Lower-income families do not have this ability.

Learn more about the other impacts of air pollution at

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