From sleepless nights caused by traffic noise to death, quantifying the toll of environmental pollution on human health has been the subject of much research. Hospital visits and incidences of illness can be counted and linked to certain types of pollution through statistical analysis; and although life and health are of intrinsic value, ascertaining a monetary equivalent that reflects public preference for the allocation of scarce resources offers a practical metric for use in policymaking so that we can better take account of them. Such a metric needs to account for the full costs of health impacts, including burdens on healthcare services, reduced economic productivity and, most importantly, lost utility associated with premature death, pain and suffering. Calculating these costs has been the subject of a number of studies over the last 30 years, with the resulting figures informing both media headlines and cost-benefit analysis in the field of environmental policymaking.
This Future Brief outlines some of the methodologies that have been used to account for health costs, both in Europe and other parts of the world. The strengths and weaknesses of each methodology are considered, and their potential applications explored. Finally, the future directions of research in this field are investigated.
Health costs related to three key categories of pollution — air pollution, noise pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals — are touched upon with an introduction given to each. However, environmental pollution is not limited to these categories (it can also be linked to water pollution, indoor air pollution, biological contamination, ionising or UV radiation and more) but it is beyond the scope of this brief to cover each in detail.