For decades, Californians have been concerned about the adverse health effects of air pollution. The Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District, for example, was one of the first of its kind in the nation back in 1947. Yet, even today, policymakers continue to struggle with not just providing an effective solution, but accurately assessing the extent of the problem. This type of pollution mainly targets the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, exacerbating conditions such as asthma. As California grows, so does its consumption and emission of fossil fuels in areas such as transportation, industrial procedures, and many more. This has led to some alarming statistics. At some point during the year, more than 90 percent of California residents breathe dangerous levels of at least one or more pollutants. In fact, many Californian cities are ranked as some of the most polluted in the country across all three standards: short-term particle pollution, year-round particle pollution, and ozone pollution.
To consider the costs of air pollutants based on their health effects, there are two primary approaches. The first looks at the medical and insurance costs that arise, such as visits to the emergency room (ER) and other consultations with health providers. The second method includes the opportunity costs that arise when pollution hampers an individual’s ability to work and contribute to the economy. Most studies on the subject date back to the late 2000s and early 2010s, so it is important to revisit and review this topic.
One of these studies, conducted in 2008 by Cal State Fullerton, found that California’s economy endured an annual $28 billion cost during the mid-2000s because of air pollution. Their research looked at air basins in the South Coast and San Joaquin Valley which had higher rates of fuel combustion. The authors calculated the associated cost by considering how these pollutants cause hospitalizations, premature deaths, and other health problems such as respiration issues. These issues can negatively impact individuals’ ability to function in areas such as work, school, exercise, etc, in turn reducing their contribution to economic output.
The next major study, done by the RAND Corporation in 2010, dug deeper into these costs. They looked at how, in California from 2005-2007, private and public insurer expenditures on hospital admissions for respiratory/cardiovascular causes as well as asthma ER visits were impacted when areas failed to meet the federal and state standards for particulate matter and ozone. There were around 30,000 hospital admissions during this time period that were attributable to elevated particulate or ozone levels. Some of the hardest-hit hospitals were Fresno’s St. Agnes Medical Center and the Riverside Community Hospital. Moreover, the total spending among insurers due to pollution-related health care stood at $193 million with public programs like Medicare and Medi-Cal bearing more costs compared to their private counterparts. The disparity between private and public insurer expenditure may indicate that those using these public programs, primarily the elderly and low-income individuals, are more likely to bear the severe health effects of air pollutants.
These studies by Cal State Fullerton and the RAND Corporation focused on explicit and implicit costs that could be most directly attributed to dangerous air pollution levels. Both studies sufficiently analyzed the various health costs relating to air pollution like healthcare utilization, insurance, and loss of work. However, future research should also work to account for the economic costs incurred as a result of the long-term health impacts of air pollution. Specifically, economists should consider the cost of cancer, as it has been reported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that there is an increased risk for breast cancer, leukemia, and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in people exposed to toxic air pollutants. A failure to address these long-term health costs would cause policymakers to underestimate the full economic burden of air pollution and potentially take insufficient action as a result.
As previously mentioned, these two studies date back more than ten years and highlight the large varying costs related to air pollution. Given that pollution has worsened in major cities across California, these costs are not going away. For instance, in downtown Los Angeles last September, the ozone pollution level went up to 185 parts per billion (ppb), the highest hourly reading in that area since 1994 and in Southern California since 2003. For comparison, the federal standard for ozone level is 70 ppb.
Recently, major studies focusing on this subject have shifted toward the national level, but these analyses still offer strategies for taking action. Specifically, the EPA’s Environmental Benefits Mapping and Analysis Program–Community Edition (BenMap-CE) tool provides a systematic way to account for air pollutants’ health costs, as it already contains data on ground-level pollutants like ozone and particulate matter and can help assess their impacts on premature deaths for different regions. However, instead of solely considering costs related to admissions in the hospital and emergency departments, we will need to examine other related costs such as ambulatory expenses as they did in Birnbaum, Howard G., et al.
Another important aspect to consider is how loosely the term “air pollutants” is defined. We can go far deeper into analyzing the adverse health outcomes of different hazardous chemicals. For instance, common pollutants like carbon monoxide (CO) can cause tissue damage and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) leads to irritation to various parts of the body like the eyes and respiratory system. Such common pollutants that cause less acute symptoms can still impose long-term economic costs, and thus are worth integrating into models assessing the costs of air pollution.
In general, California as a state and cities like Los Angeles have all taken steps to reduce air pollution and tackle the issue head-on. Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order last year to ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars and passenger trucks in 2035. Similarly, Los Angeles came up with its own Green New Deal which has goals like decreasing industrial emissions by 38% and 82% by 2035 and 2050, respectively. Though these moves are beneficial in the long term, there needs to be more emphasis on making an immediate impact. For instance, in Southern California, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), which covers Orange County and Los Angeles’ urban areas, voted in favor to increase its toxic emissions fees from $500,000 to $4.9 million each year back in 2019. This hike in the fines will financially incentivize emitters of these pollutants to adopt cleaner practices and thus reduce airborne pollutant concentrations.
Additionally, community and local level initiatives offer a scalable and short-term way to increase attention to the issue of pollution, motivating individuals to pursue rapid change. Specifically, the introduction of air quality sensors can operate as a constant indication of how dangerous and pertinent the issue is. For example, if the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health could implement low-cost air quality sensors near major pollutants like oil fields, they would be able to analyze the prevalence of harmful chemicals like benzene and n-hexane in the area. By directly attributing causation to nearby firms, local policymakers will be encouraged to address this pervasive issue.
In order to immediately combat the health and economic costs that arise from California’s air pollution, it is necessary to utilize additional means to financially support the state while discouraging pollution. At the moment, the strategy used by the AQMD could work on a statewide level, simultaneously boosting the economy while incentivizing polluters to minimize their output. Other strategies like introducing air pollutant sensors and redefining which chemicals constitute air pollution create a more comprehensive image of the current state of air pollution and its costs across California. Overall, the issue of air pollutants is one with a direct health impact and an indirect financial one, and it is critical to consider both when trying to solve this pervasive problem.