Adverse Health Impacts on Communities

Sarah Simon

21 min Read Time | November 30th 2022

Key Takeaways


The topic deals with the negative effects people/vulnerable communities encounter because of a company’s pollution of air, water, and soil.


The core focus should be on how any activity is threatening or destroying one’s health and ultimately communities' decent and dignified standard of living. The analysis can discuss one, two, or the three pollutions’ impacts on communities (depending on those that are relevant).


This topic covers the negative impact only in relation to the company's direct or indirect business activities.

What is it?

Adverse Health Impacts is defined as “the causation, promotion, facilitation and/or exacerbation of a structural and/or functional abnormality, with the implication that the abnormality produced has the potential of lowering the quality of life, contributing to a disabling illness, or leading to a premature death.

The above is intrinsically connected to one’s healthy and dignified standard of living. Companies, in this aspect, might negatively bring about externalities that impair communities’ health and well-being.

This topic explores the negative direct effects stemming from the air, soil, and water pollution. According to the UNDP, “the right to breathe clean air is one of the components of the right to a healthy environment. Air pollution negatively impacts the enjoyment of many human rights, particularly the right to life and the right to health, especially in relation to vulnerable groups.” The same applies when discussing soil and water.

As a parameter for comparison, air, soil, and water pollution kill 8.3 million people globally every year. The WHO states that pollution might decrease one’s life expectancy by approximately one year.



SDG choice

✅ SDG: 3, 15

✅ Category: processes

Impact assessment

Air Pollution

Specifically, when the note deals with Air Quality, we must remember that Air Pollutants differ from greenhouse gases. While greenhouse gases affect the environment and contribute to global warming, air pollutants tend to be more harmful to humans.

Human activity releases various air pollutants. In particular industrial processes generate:

  • Particles - classified by size, typically PM10, which are coarse particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers (μm) or less; fine particles, designated PM2.5, with a diameter of 2.5 or less

  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx)

  • Sulphur oxides (SOx)

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

  • Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs)

  • Others*

Reminder: never combine Air Pollutants with GHGs as they are separate topics

*Other pollutants like methane (CH4) and carbon monoxide (CO), are linked to some health conditions, but only in certain circumstances.

This relates to the topic of Accidents/Workforce Health & Safety (and should not be treated under this topic). For example, an analysis can be accepted if there was an event where people/communities were exposed to a high level of concentration (like in closed doors) of such pollutants enduring significant adverse health effects. Groups are negatively affected when exposed to high concentrations indoors, but these same pollutants will not cause significant adverse health effects when released into the atmosphere.

Source image:

The air pollutants emitted by a single company are relatively small when comparing the volume to industrial, national, and global amounts, even if it is a major polluter such as an Oil & Gas or Mining company.

Because air pollution occurs from all sorts of activities worldwide, which cannot be pinpointed to a specific activity or location, pollutants spread and suspend in the air - affecting everyone. This causes adverse health effects, especially when exposed to it for prolonged periods of time.

As companies’ air pollutant emissions are regulated by governments that require mandatory reporting, many companies disclose their air pollutant emissions in their annual CSR/Sustainability report.

When analysing the emissions of a company’s air pollutants, you should report the yearly, absolute quantity of pollutants emitted per category.

After reporting the company’s overall air pollutants and the scale of the impact, you should benchmark these emissions. This will further help readers assess the scale and value of the impact. How significant are the emissions?


Build a strong introduction by making it clear that the emitted pollutants are responsible for deteriorating the air quality and, that even short-term exposure to some of these pollutants can lead to health issues, backed with quantitative data.

Use studies in your introduction to state the impact of these pollutants on human health and explain why it is an issue in the company's industry.

As various symptoms can be triggered by air pollution, in which the blame cannot be attributed to a singular company, it is important to disclose the scale and the value of the impact in the introduction.

Core analysis:

We will not accept analyses that only disclose the amounts of pollutants released (e.g., SOx, NOx, PM, etc.) without adding any other information that helps the reader rate the impact scale.

It should discuss:

  • How many pollutants are emitted by the company? This includes operations and product use (i.e., automobile factories and driving vehicles).

    • You should not discuss only operational air pollution.

  • How many pollutants should a person be exposed to suffer from health consequences? (find a direct impact to help measure the scale and substantiate the claim).

  • If this information is unavailable, benchmark the emissions to the industry standard to assess if the emissions are below, inline, or above the industry average.

  • Are the emissions dissipated or concentrated, like in urban areas or pollution "hot spots"? Has it had a direct impact on people?
    Or do you know of any thresholds (that may be industry-specific)? Keen on having any of you do some further digging on this

  • Compare the company's emissions with the industry average or a close competitor if the industry average is not available.

  • Including, as a secondary point, whether the company is investing in technologies to control/monitor the emission of these pollutants.

To publish the analysis, it must build a strong case about the issue and be as robust as possible. To do this, please:

  • Try to find the direct impact: has the company been fined by the authorities? Have they violated any regulations (such as the Clean Air Act)? Are there direct links to the number of people harmed by air pollution?
  • Using external studies, correlate the areas where the company has factories/operations with rising health issues in surrounding communities.

The OECD stats website is a helpful start.

  • Take it a step further: are the emissions dissipated or concentrated, like in urban areas or pollution “hot spots”? Has it had a direct impact on people?
  • You can use air pollution heat maps and/or other methods to make these extrapolations.
  • This is relevant for the US, so if analysts can find this for other countries, then we can correlate the areas of factories/operations to those areas to find a direct impact.
  • This other source is really good for the US, also one for the world per country. Keep in mind that this data is very dynamic, so be sure to be nuanced.

You can check if it is located in an air pollution hotspot, globally, or in the US.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) value is a measure of any given location's air pollution level. AQI value below 50 represents good air quality, but higher AQI values increase health risks.

Rather than writing vague analyses that only state how many pollutants have been emitted and finding some comparisons, there needs to be more direct impact data and should be more linked to adverse health impacts (not stating that such an amount of people could potentially be affected).

You should focus on specific events that have been shown to affect people, like reporting on authorities that have fined companies for violating the clean air act or other examples.

What we would find even more interesting is knowing whether communities around the companies' operations, such as factories, have contracted illnesses - respiratory or other.

This would be more difficult for airlines/automobiles/air freight industries. However, for manufacturing companies or extractives, it would be essential to know the impact on people's health regarding soil and water pollution.

Helpful tips:

  • Look for heat maps of concentrations of pollution.

  • This is relevant for the US, so if analysts can find this for other countries, then we can correlate the areas of factories/operations to those areas to find direct impact.

  • This other source is good for the US, also one for the world per country. Remember that this data is very dynamic, so be sure to be nuanced.

  • Conclusion: will be strict about it, finding direct impact through fines by authorities, links to the surrounding communities, and heatmap where there are concentrations.


If the direct data is unavailable to determine the number of people's health that has deteriorated from the company's pollutants, please do not include an estimation about the number of deaths/health issues the company may be responsible for, being inaccurate.

We also prefer not to include comparisons with the country's or industry’s total emissions since it will probably render a very low percentage (0.00000x%) and, thus, mislead the readers into thinking that the impact is insignificant. It is better to compare it to the industry average, assessing whether the company is below, in line, or above the industry average.

You can mention if the pollutants have increased or decreased over the years in a single statistic (% change). However, avoid comparing the company's year-on-year release of air pollutants, leading to writing about remediation measures. Always remember to give the broader impact first.

In your analysis, make sure you add value to your readers and go beyond the company’s CSR report by not merely reporting data from the company’s report but going the extra mile of providing additional metrics, studies, and sources to make your analysis robust and the impact value and scale are clear.

Please note that air pollution significantly impacts certain industries, such as airlines, air freight & logistics, automobiles, and others. For other manufacturing industries or extractives, it is important to consider all pollution that has detrimental impacts on people's health, such as air, water, and soil. It is crucial for the analysis to be as comprehensive as possible by disclosing the direct link, especially from water and soil pollution from, for instance, metals & mining, oil & gas, waste management, etc.

It would be good to always ask for this information, and if unavailable, include the impacts from soil and water pollution in the introduction these impacts are tailored to the industry it is in unless you are certain that it is not having such impacts.

Soil and Water Pollution


The introduction shall discuss the negative effects of pollution on human health. Any mention of the environment shall be kept outside the discussion.

For instance:

Industries are a source of water pollution, producing extremely harmful pollutants to people and the environment1. As of 2020, 88.4 million (Mn) barrels of oil were produced on a daily basis2. Around 40,000 oil fields exist across the globe3. 6Mn people live or work near such oil fields3. Of the total oil fields, 40 are supergiant fields with the production capacity of recoverable oil of around 1 billion barrels or even more. People exposed to such wastes have an increased risk of cancer, higher levels of toxic elements in the body, respiratory diseases, and liver failure5.

Core Analysis:

The body must prove the direct link between the company’s actions/activities and the adverse health impacts observed in the affected communities.

The analysis must include:

  • What type of pollution has negatively impacted communities, if not all three (air, water, soil).

  • Research whether NGOs or other organisations have measured the direct effects of such pollution.

  • If this direct data is unavailable, using external studies and proxies, you can measure how much water and soil pollution affects communities if the water is ingested or used in crops grown in the contaminated soil.

For instance:

Around 120,000 people were put at risk of adverse health impacts8. The oil spill was preventable since the collapse was predicted in advance due to oil erosions8. The construction of pipeline itself was a high risk venture since the area is highly volatile with volcanic eruptions, seisemic activity and floods8. Around 27,000 Kichwa people, impacted by the spill, raised concern over health effects of the spill such as skin rashes and gastrointestinal problems9. The water is still highly contaminated and unfit for fishing, drinking and bathing9.

Added Value on Environmental Injustice:

Environmental injustice is the disproportionate exposure of vulnerable communities to environmental hazards that affect the overall health and wellbeing of the local communities. Communities that consist of minorities and/or low income are more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards than more affluent and privileged groups.

Environmental racism is a type of injustice in which environmental hazards disproportionately affect communities of color and are one of the main causes of fatality in these communities. Research shows that it is more economically favorable to pollute in communities of color than in white communities.

Environmental injustice occurs in various contexts whether that is from a company extracting local resources, sending hazardous waste overseas to a developing region, or contaminating solid and water bodies that cause grave health issues.

Natural resource extraction

Resource extraction is the act of withdrawing local materials from the environment to be used as a commodity. Some examples include fossil fuels, minerals, trees, animals, water, etc. Resource extraction impacts local communities economically, socially, and environmentally, often in an environmentally unjust way.

Indigenous communities in particular often live in regions abundant with resources, like oil/gas, minerals, plants, etc. Unfortunately, economic interests have historically cost the wellbeing of these communities, and indigenous peoples are still facing exploitation and expropriation today.

Addressing the impact on these communities is imperative so that our platform can provide a voice for those who systematically may not have the privilege to be heard. However, this topic is not limited to only the discussion of marginalized communities as the focus should be on a local community that has been clearly affected by the company’s activity.

Alternatively, the impact of resource extraction is not always negative, i.e. in the case of sustainable development with the local community, especially when the extraction is done in an ethical way that actually benefits their livelihood and preserves their culture.

Shipping hazardous waste to developing nations

Hazardous waste being sent to developing countries gives rise to great concerns. Not only are most developing countries ill-equipped to manage hazardous waste in an environmentally sound manner, but often lack the resources to mitigate health impacts arising out of the handling of hazardous waste.

Even though many countries have banned the import of waste, the issue continues to remain and causes serious health concerns from hazardous waste and chemicals in particular. These environmental pollutants cause serious detriment to communities in developing nations.

Soil and water contamination

Soil properties and conditions determine the ability to grow nutritious crops in sufficient quantities. However, soils containing substances such as heavy metals are that are toxic to people gravely impact health and food security.

Water pollution occurs when a body of water becomes contaminated, usually by chemicals or microorganisms. Water pollution can cause water to become toxic to humans and the environment. This can occur in many ways, such as ingesting microplastics, drinking water contaminated by sewage or drinking chemical waste, and others.

Other examples include:

  • Toxic chemical exposure, such as residents near toxic waste sites and landfills are often part of lower-income groups.
  • Water pollution leads to public health crises, like in Flint Michigan, where the water was contaminated with lead.


Common mistakes:

  • For automobile, air freight, road transportation, and similar industries, you should not only treat the operational emissions but also the pollutants from the fleet

  • Only including one aspect, e.g. air pollution, when others are significant for the industry (soil, water)


There are no hard thresholds for this topic as vulnerable groups are usually on the lower part of the scale. The analysis is publishable if it has demonstrated that the company has had a direct impact on communities through its business activities or in the area where the company’s operations are located, that there is sufficient data to capture the impact and on whom, and that the impact is deep and persistent.

To describe the scale of the impact, take into account:

1/ The breadth of the impact

  • Is the impact local, national, or global?

  • How many people are concerned? Thousands? Millions? Billions?

2/ The depth of the impact

  • Is the life of people concerned deeply affected, or does the issue just marginally impact them?

  • Are the changes brought by the issue profoundly changing society or the planet?

3/ The persistence of the impact

  • How long would the impact described last for? Months? Years? Decades?

  • How reversible is the impact described in the impact analysis? Can it be easily stopped/extended?

In your analysis, make sure you add value to your readers and go beyond the company’s CSR report by not merely reporting data from the company’s report but going the extra mile of providing additional metrics, studies, and sources to make your analysis robust and the impact value and scale are clear.

Helpful Statistics

A helpful statistic that shows how widespread the issue is, for example, is that 91% of the world's population lives in places where air quality levels exceed the limits set by the WHO.

A helpful statistic that shows the scale is, for example:

  • In 2019, 6.6 million people died from air pollution

  • It is the leading environmental risk factor for early death

A helpful statistic that shows how widespread the issue is, for example:

  • 91% of the world's population lives in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits.

  • The Air Quality Index (AQI) value is a measure of the air pollution level of any given location. AQI value below 50 represents good air quality, but higher AQI values increase health risk.

  • Air pollution exposure to PM2.5 (micrograms per cubic meter) shows scale per country

  • Air pollution in OECD countries

  • Air pollution from SO2 by sector (p15) & by country (p18)

  • Air pollution in the US

  • Bazil air pollutants limits:


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