Industrialization can impose pressures on the environment and human health from several sources, including the extraction and consumption of raw materials, emissions of industrial pollutants, and increased energy demand. In most developed countries, decades of strong regulations have brought some of the worst pollution problems under control, although serious problems still remain. In the less developed countries, where regulations and enforcement tend to be more lax and pressures for economic growth are intense, pollution abatement remains a critical challenge. Problems or resource consumption remain prominent across the world, especially in the wealthiest countries, which consume vast quantities of raw resources to support their quality of life. Implementing changes to make industry both cleaner and more efficient could greatly influence health, both today and in the future.
Despite substantial progress, continuing efforts are warranted in both developed and developing countries to reduce exposure to industrial pollutants. Command-and-control strategies remain an important component of pollution control strategies, especially in developing countries. In addition, market strategies can provide financial incentives for industry to adopt less polluting behavior or technology. Such strategies tend to be flexible, enabling the polluter to choose the most economical option for reaching a desired target. Examples of market strategies include environmental taxes, pollution levies, and tradable permit systems.
In the United States, emissions trading has successfully reduced overall industrial sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions. Under this program, companies can meet emissions reduction targets by reducing pollution themselves, by purchasing reductions from another company that was able to cut more emissions at lower cost, or by employing a combination of both methods. Public disclosure of environmental performance can also encourage pollution reduction. Indonesia has recently initiated an overall environmental performance rating system for factories, rating plants according to five categories. Preliminary evidence suggests that this program is having a significant impact on pollution abatement (82). In both Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil, pollution control agencies have also experimented with programs that involve public disclosure of poor environmental performance of large industries (83).
Reducing exposure to the worst offenders
When faced with numerous and uncertain health risks and limited resources to combat pollution, it makes sense for governments to focus control efforts on the worst offenders. Scientific debate continues regarding the exact health effects related to low-level exposures of some industrial pollutants. But for other pollutants – in particular heavy metals such as lead–no such subtleties remain. Heavy metals are extremely hazardous to human health, and there is no justification for the human exposures that continue today, causing avoidable and sometimes irreversible damage to human health. Long-lived chemical pollutants, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), are another case in point. (See The Problem of Pops.) Removing substances such as heavy metals and POPs from use and trade is both urgent and feasible.
Getting Lead Out of Gasoline. Lead poisoning remains the single most significant and easily preventable condition associated with an environmental and occupational toxin (84). Many countries are still placing their population – in particular, their children – at risk by allowing the use of lead in gasoline.
Evidence from the United States, Japan, Europe, and Mexico suggests that phasing out leaded gasoline will be the most effective way to reduce the general population’s exposure to lead, although other sources of lead exposure are also important (85). Phasing out lead is not a policy action limited to wealthy or middle-income countries; indeed, Honduras and Nicaragua, both low-income countries, have made dramatic strides in phasing out leaded gasoline (86).
Although the technical process of phasing out lead from gasoline is simple and the costs are modest, rapid phaseout is nevertheless complex. At the core of any successful campaign to eliminate leaded gasoline is the need to raise public awareness of the risks of using leaded gasoline (87). Misconceptions are still widespread that high octane, and therefore highly leaded, fuels provide better vehicle performance. Changing this perception and informing citizens about the health impacts of lead – especially on children – can be powerful tools for getting the public to support difficult policy decisions and change consumer behavior.
Refineries shoulder the greatest cost in a switch to unleaded gasoline. However, governments can offset some of these costs by helping companies finance the initial modifications needed to produce unleaded gasoline. Market-based policy incentives that allow the refineries some flexibility can also help reduce the costs of lead phaseout. In the United States, for example, interrefinery trading and the banking of lead credits – similar to today’s SO2 emissions trading program – accelerated the ability of refineries to respond to more stringent environmental regulations about lead content. Large refineries, which could afford the costs of adjustment, achieved higher-than-required lead reductions, earning credits that could then be sold to smaller refineries (which have fewer resources to make adjustments), or banked against future reduction requirements (88). In addition, refinery investments necessary to reduce the lead content of gasoline often pay for themselves over time as a result of improved productivity and refining efficiency (89).
During the phaseout period, when both unleaded and leaded gasoline are available, pricing leaded gasoline higher than unleaded can increase consumer demand for unleaded gasoline. In most Western European countries, for example, the initial small difference in the price of leaded versus unleaded fuel was gradually increased; in the United Kingdom, leaded gasoline now costs 11 percent more than unleaded gasoline (90).
Generally, countries can recover 5 to 10 times the cost of converting to unleaded gas in health and economic savings. The United States, for example, saved more than US$10 for every US$1 it invested in the conversion due to reduced health costs, savings on engine maintenance, and improved fuel efficiency (91). Because leaded gasoline contains lead salts and halogen acids, it causes greater corrosion of automobile exhaust systems and requires more frequent oil and spark-plug changes. Switching from leaded to unleaded gasoline may increase engine life by as much as 150 percent. Indeed, the U.S. experience showed that it pays to remove lead from gasoline solely in terms of vehicle maintenance costs; the substantial health benefits are an additional benefit.
A long-term strategy for preventing exposure to hazardous industrial pollutants is to reduce their use in the first place through cleaner production. Moving toward eco-efficiency, as this goal is often defined, means that industry must reduce raw material inputs – chemicals, natural resources, energy, water – and at the same time reduce air, water, and solid pollutants for each unit of production (92). This push toward cleaner production is typically driven by environmental and economic concerns rather than by health concerns, although it seems certain that cleaner production would benefit public health as well.
Unlike the industrialized countries, developing countries have the opportunity to leapfrog over some polluting industries and technologies into cleaner production. Recent advances in information systems, telecommunications, biotechnology, new materials, and miniaturization portend dramatic reductions in material and energy inputs (93). Pollution monitoring and control technologies have also improved over the past 20 years. If proper incentives are in place, developing countries need not build or import yesterday’s dirty technology, as all too often occurs today. The key to spurring this technological change and transfer is to send clear social, economic, and regulatory signals to companies and to ensure that markets for environmentally benign technologies will continue to grow (94).
The potential for improved investments is enormous. The current trend toward globalization, with its accompanying investment flows, means that private companies are increasingly influencing industrial change, much more so than public investments or development assistance. Indeed, roughly 70 percent of net resource flows to the developing world now derive from the private sector (95). Especially in the newly industrializing, fast-growth economies – those facing the greatest risks from unchecked industrial pollution – conditions are conducive for financing environmentally sound technology. The World Bank estimates, for example, that firms that have yet to be established will account for more than 80 percent of industrial output by 2010 (96). Indonesia has already made strides in this direction. For instance, the new pulp and paper mills being built there have pulping and bleaching technologies on par with those now being proposed as the U.S. environmental standard (97). Although the initial costs of cleaner technologies may be higher than those of older technologies, the provision of financial and technical assistance can encourage their adoption. Such a strategy will offer economic savings and environmental and health benefits long into the future.