Mortality effects of exposure to air pollution and other environmental hazards are often described by the estimated number of “premature” or “attributable” deaths and the economic value of a reduction in exposure as the product of an estimate of “statistical lives saved” and a “value per statistical life.”
These terms can be misleading because the number of deaths advanced by exposure cannot be determined from mortality data alone, whether from epidemiology or randomized trials (it is not statistically identified). The fraction of deaths “attributed” to exposure is conventionally derived as the hazard fraction (R – 1)/R, where R is the relative risk of mortality between high and low exposure levels. The fraction of deaths advanced by exposure (the “etiologic” fraction) can be substantially larger or smaller: it can be as large as one and as small as 1/e (≈0.37) times the hazard fraction. Recent literature reveals misunderstanding about these concepts.
Total life years lost in a population due to exposure can be estimated but cannot be disaggregated by age or cause of death (which are inputs to disability-adjusted life years used to quantify the burden of disease). Economic valuation of a change in exposure‐related mortality risk to a population is not affected by inability to know the fraction of deaths that are etiologic.
When individuals facing larger or smaller changes in mortality risk cannot be identified, the mean change in population hazard is sufficient for valuation; otherwise, the economic value can depend on the distribution of risk reductions.