Friday, April 14, 2006

How Much Death Does My Consumption Cause?

After reading Fast Food Nation and Garbage Land, I realized that there are some pretty awful jobs out there that cause a lot of injuries and death. Which made me wonder, what can I do to minimize these kind of jobs? As a consumer I could choose not to buy the products that create these dangerous jobs (or decrease my purchases of them) and shift my purchases to goods which were safer for workers.

But in order to do this, I would need to know what kind of products create dangerous jobs, and which ones created safe jobs. Ideally I would like to have this information available on a label on all products. How many deaths did this product cause, and how many injuries? Then I could add it up for all of my consumption for a year and find out what the total impact is. This would also put pressure on employers to make work safer, as the information would now be available to consumers.

I decided to take a look and see what I could find out. I wasn't able to find injury data, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks deaths by industry and jobs type so you can see what jobs are the most dangerous.

This is my very rough attempt at trying to determine the death impact of a few products (underlying sources for the numbers are at the end of the post). Waste refers to municipal garbage. Coal is consumed when we use electricity.


Total US Production (in billion lbs)

Total Worker DeathsDeath per Pound (in billionths)Avg US Consumption a Year (in lbs)Deaths per avg US Consumption (in billionths)
Wheat129.4 5.039313 12
Milk170.862.363 176 64
Fish9.4485.10815 80
Beef26.2582.21090 199
Waste738.0 91.1232,460302

This graph lets you see on a per pound basis, just how much death is being caused. And if you multiply that by average pounds of consumption, you can see how much death is attributable to each average American consumer a year.

The numbers show that wheat causes much less death for workers than do milk, fish or beef both per pound and per average American consumption. Per pound fish causes twice as many deaths as beef does, and both are much higher than milk. So, if more people drank milk to get protein rather than fish or beef, lives could be saved. Ironically, the disposal of our waste causes more deaths (based on an average consumption) than any of the others on this list.

The billionth numbers seem very small (and they are) but they do add up. 5,575 died on the job in the US in 2003. If we could change our consumption patterns to cut this in half, we would save over 2,700 lives a year. To put that in comparison, 846 US soldiers died in Iraq in 2005. So we could save over 3 times as many lives as were lost in Iraq.

Other caveats:
These numbers do not take transportation into account. Many deaths are attributable to the transportation sector, so this should really be added in.

The American Lung Association estimates that 24,000 people die prematurely each year from power-plant pollution. Makes the 27 directly attributable deaths from coal mining seem pretty small.

The waste numbers refer to the disposal of municipal waste. But, the death number probably includes commercial and industrial waste disposal. Those deaths should be attributed to the end products that they are for.

Two industries I wanted to add were mining and forestry. Both are dangerous. I would have liked to know the death rate of buying jewelry. But, I figured most gold and diamond mining is done outside the US, so it would be difficult to figure out. Also, the valuable metals and minerals are recycled which also makes it more difficult to figure. Wood products and paper were also trickier than I wanted to attempt.

On the safer side, I am curious about media goods like: TV shows, movies, songs, books, magazines and newspapers. I bet these are much safer for workers and as I shift my consumption away from physical goods and more towards digital ones, the better it would be for workers.

Maybe in a later post I can look into these.

Sources and derivation of numbers:
Data on deaths was based on BLS numbers here. More information on workers deaths can be found at here, here, and here

5 deaths (BLS)

United States: 58.8 million tonnes produced (
58.8 million tonnes* 2,200 lbs/tonne= 129.36 billion pounds
5 deaths/ 129.36 billion pounds= .039/bil pounds

Americans consume 36% of the total U.S. wheat crop (
129.36 * .36% = 47 bil pounds /300 million Americans = 313 lbs a year
313 lb * .039 deaths/bil pounds = 12 billionth deaths

48 deaths (BLS 2003)

9,397 million pounds of fish caught by American fishermen (NOAA)
48 deaths/9.397 billion = 5.108 deaths/bil pounds

15.6 lbs consumed per American (NOAA)
15.6 lbs* 5.108 deaths/bil pounds= 79.6 billionth deaths

58 deaths: Beef Cattle Ranching and Farming 39 + Animal Slaughtering and Processing 19

26.24 billion pounds produced in US in 2003 (USDA)
58 deaths/26.24 bil = 2.210 deaths/bil pounds

27.0 billion pounds consumed in 2003 (USDA)
27.0 billion pounds / 300 mil Americans = 90 lbs average consumption per American
90 lbs * 2.210 deaths/bil pounds= 198.9 deaths/bil a year

62 deaths: Dairy Cattle and Milk Production 56 + Dairy Product Manufacturing 6

The United States produced 170.8 billion pounds of milk in 2004. (IDFA)
62 deaths/ 170.8 bil pounds= .363 deaths/bil pounds

Fluid sales 53 bil pounds, 6.15 bil gallons (IDFA)
53 bil /300 mil = 176 lbs/person
176 lbs* .363 deaths/bil pounds = 64 deaths/bil a year

coal mining
27 deaths: BLS

1,071,753,000 short tons (NMA)
1,071,753,000 short tons * 2,000 lbs/ton = 2,142 bil pound
27/2,142 bil = .0126 deaths per bil pounds

One pound of coal generates about 1 kWh of electricity. Coal Education
Average American consumes 4,500kwh/yr in residential electricity (DOE)
4,500 kWh uses about 4,500 lbs of coal
4,500 * .0126 = 56.7 deaths/bil a year

Notes: 1/2 of electricity in US is supplied by coal. This estimate is only good for those who get all their electricity from coal.
1/3 of all electricity is residential use. So on average 2kWh are used in industry and commercial for every 1 that is used residentially.

waste/ garbage collection
91 deaths: waste collection 73 + waste treatment and disposal 18

369 million tons of municipal waste in US 2002 (Garbage Land)
369 mil* 2000 = 738 bil pounds
91 deaths/738 bil pounds= .123 deaths/bil pounds

738 bil tons/300 mil Americans = 2,460 lbs per person in US
2,460 lbs * .123 deaths/bil pounds = 302 deaths/bil a year

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