Fossil fuels are bad for your health and harmful in many ways besides climate change

Fossil fuels are bad for your health and harmful in many ways besides climate change
Pumpjacks dot the Kern River oil field outside Bakersfield, Calif. Credit: James William Smith/Shutterstock.com

Many Democratic lawmakers aim to pass a Green New Deal, a package of policies that would mobilize vast amounts of money to create new jobs and address inequality while fighting climate change.

Led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, they are calling for massive investments in and other measures over a decade that would greatly reduce or even end the nation's overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels.

As experts in environmental geography, sociology, and sustainability science and policy, we wholeheartedly support this effort. And, as we explained in a recently published study, is not the only reason to ditch fossil fuels.

The coal, oil and industries are also major contributors to human rights violations, public health disasters and environmental devastation.

Sacrifice zones

While conducting our research, we constantly encounter new evidence that depending on for energy harms people and communities at every point along fossil fuel supply chains, especially where coal, oil and natural gas are extracted.

Fossil fuels require what journalist Naomi Klein calls "sacrifice zones" – places and communities damaged or even destroyed by fossil fuel drilling and mining. But we have observed that politicians and other decision-makers tend to overlook these harms and injustices and that most energy consumers – meaning most people – are generally unaware of these issues.

We see no sign that decisions about new pipelines, and other fossil fuel infrastructure account fully for the harms and costs of these industries to society and the toll taken on nature from pollution and other problems attributable to burning fossil fuels.

Burning coal, oil and natural gas is particularly bad for public health. This combustion generates a lot of air pollution, contributing to 7 million premature deaths worldwide every year.

The Cerrejón open-pit coal mine in Colombia has severely disrupted life for indigenous people across La Guajira.

One Duke University-led study of climate scientists determined that reducing in line with a goal of limiting to 1.5 C, a level that scientists believe could avert disastrous consequences from climate change, would prevent 153 million premature deaths, largely by reducing air pollution.

Some communities are harmed more than others. For instance, EPA researchers studying data collected between 2009 and 2013 found that black Americans are exposed to 1.5 times more pollutants than white people.

Coal

More than 2,000 miners across Appalachia are dying from an advanced stage of black lung disease. This illness, also known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, comes from inhaling coal mine dust.

And thousands of coal miners have died horrible deaths from silicosis after inhaling tiny silicon particles in mines. And the communities where oil and gas is being extracted are exposed to water and air pollution that endangers their health, such as increasing the risk to certain childhood cancers.

Even living near coal mines or coal-fired power plants is a health hazard.

A team of Harvard school of public health scientists estimated that 53 premature deaths per year, 570 emergency room visits, and 14,000 asthma attacks annually could be attributed to pollution from a coal power plant in Salem, Massachusetts, one of the sites we studied.

What's more, the people living within 30 miles of the coal plant, which was replaced with a natural gas-burning power station in 2018, were between two and five times more likely to get respiratory problems and other illnesses than those living farther away do.

But what we call the "hidden injustices" tied to Salem's coal plant didn't stop there.

The Aliso Canyon gas leak near Los Angeles in 2015 released more than 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere.

The plant burned coal imported from La Guajira, Colombia, that was mined from Cerrejón, one of the world's largest open-pit coal mines. That same mine has displaced thousands of indigenous people through physical force, coercion and the contamination of farmland and drinking water.

Natural gas

As coal plants shut down, more natural gas is being burned. That should be cleaner and safer – right? Not exactly.

First, the methane and other greenhouse gases that leak from natural gas pipelines and other infrastructure mean that using gas warms the climate nearly as much as does.

Second, fracking, horizontal drilling and the other so-called unconventional methods for extracting natural gas and oil are introducing new dangers. There is growing evidence that living close to fracking sites causes various public health complications including: increased risk of birth defects, certain cancers, asthma and other respiratory ailments, earthquakes, and occupational health and safety problems like exposure to crystalline silica, a type of sand used during fracking.

Many of the Pennsylvanians we interviewed for our study told us that they feared for their health due to their potential exposure to the chemicals and toxicants used in fracking. Other research indicates that living near fracked natural gas wells can increase the probability of skin and respiratory conditions.

At every stage, natural gas operations can pollute water, air and land, harming ecosystems.

In California, a catastrophic natural gas leak at Aliso Canyon storage well in 2016 spewed as much pollution as some 600,000 cars would over a year. Hundreds of neighboring residents experienced nausea, headaches and other health problems.

Natural gas is also highly flammable. Two serious accidents in January 2019, the deadly gas explosions at a bakery in Paris and the more than 89 people killed in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico, highlighted how risky natural gas can be.

In the wake of the Gulf Coast oil disaster, Dr. Farris Tuma, chief of the NIMH Traumatic Stress Research Program, addressed mental health challenges facing residents and health care providers.

Here in the U.S., a series of deadly explosions and gas-fueled fires in September 2018 in the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts intensified debates over the future of natural gas.

Oil

Despite global reliance on oil and petroleum products like plastics, oil extraction, whether through traditional drilling technology or fracking, is dangerous. Its distribution by pipelines, trains and trucks is also risky.

Decades of oil spills in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta has made the region one of the most polluted places on earth. And the mining of Canada's tar sands has desecrated land belonging to First Nations, as most of the indigenous people of Canada are known.

In addition to the environmental devastation of massive oil spills like the Exxon Valdez and BP's Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill of 2010, these leaks can cause pollution and serious health hazards.

Phasing out

Like virtually all environmental scholars, we consider global warming to be an urgent and existential threat. We recognize that replacing fossil-fuel infrastructure is an enormous endeavor. But the latest National Climate Assessment, a federal report predicting dire consequences from global warming, showed how ignoring this problem could cost more in the long term.

Based on our research, we believe that phasing out fossil fuels can improve , enhance human rights and empower communities politically. Moreover, a Green New Deal has the potential to create many jobs and enhance global stability.

As the debate about the Green New Deal takes shape, we hope that more lawmakers will recognize that above and beyond the benefits of a more stable climate, phasing out fossil fuels as soon as possible would also improve the lives of many vulnerable communities in the U.S. and around the world.


Explore further

Fossil fuels are bad for your health and harmful in many ways besides climate change

Provided by The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.The Conversation

Citation: Fossil fuels are bad for your health and harmful in many ways besides climate change (2019, February 27) retrieved 25 June 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-02-fossil-fuels-bad-health-ways_1.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
40 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Feb 27, 2019
In the long run, nuclear is the only option, probably thorium cycle.
As much wind and solar as the grids can stand, but the backbone of the system requires constant availability. Hydro is great, but geographically limited, and has its own environmental footprint issues.



Feb 27, 2019
In the long run, nuclear is the only option, .
Why? It is currently by far the most expensive and least cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels.
Now, don't get me wrong! I have no axe to grind against nuclear; I have nothing against nuclear in principle. And I know the dangers from nuclear are often massively exaggerated.
However, right now, and even taking full account of all the energy storage costs from using renewables, its by far the most expensive alternative to fossil fuels and it looks it will stay that way for a very long time to come. That doesn't necessarily mean it will ALWAYS be more expensive, but I see no indication it won't be.
Also the cost of renewables are going down all the time!
See;

https://cleantech...heapest/

"...Solar and wind energy are beating dirty fossil fuels and nuclear power in the marketplace. ..."

Feb 27, 2019
Shovel-ready jobs, anyone? Every time I think they're about to run out my money, they come up with yet another grandiose scheme to extract it from me.


Feb 27, 2019
Here is John Bolton (U.S. National Security Advisor) - talking to Fox News - back in Jan.
We're in conversation with major American companies now. I think we're trying to get to the same end result here. … It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.
Any questions?


Feb 28, 2019
Despite the well-known adverse impacts of fossil fuels, chiefly air pollution, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. The rapid and widespread increase in standard of living, health and longevity of humans in the last century is directly attributable to fossil fuels. Eventually we'll find something to replace them. When the technology arrives. Trying to eliminate fossil fuels without any viable replacement is not only unrealistic; it is dangerous.

Feb 28, 2019
n the long run, nuclear is the only option

For large-scale, reliable, clean "base load" power it is by far the best option. With recent technological improvements in uranium extraction, we have fuel to last us for about a billion years. Should be long enough. But nuclear power can't fly planes. Yet.
(nuclear) is currently by far the most expensive and least cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels.

Nope. Solar thermal, offshore wind power and tide power are much more expensive.

https://en.m.wiki...y_source

There are many different measures of the levelized cost of electricity generation and nuclear sometimes comes out cheaper than wind or solar PV. Look at France's figures.

None of them, however, factor in the cost of intermittency of wind and solar PV. Fossil fuels and nuclear run at 80% capacity or better, which is what has to be relied on when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine.

Feb 28, 2019
Despite the well-known adverse impacts of fossil fuels, chiefly air pollution, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. The rapid and widespread increase in standard of living, health and longevity of humans in the last century is directly attributable to fossil fuels.
aksdad

Correct (obviously). But continue...
Eventually we'll find something to replace them. When the technology arrives. Trying to eliminate fossil fuels without any viable replacement is not only unrealistic; it is dangerous.


We have ALREADY found something to replace them and the technology has ALREADY arrived and NOBODY, at least nobody I am aware of, is demanding or ever has demanded we should "eliminate fossil fuels without any viable replacement".
Nope. Solar thermal, offshore wind power and tide power are much more expensive.

Your own link doesn't confirm this assertion while my links clearly contradict it.
Thus it is clear the opposite is true.


Feb 28, 2019
https://www.green....ebGrRzM
"... Why PV Costs Have Fallen So Far—and Will Fall Further

researchers have dissected the causes of solar price drops over the last four decades — a trend that analysts say will continue.

..the MIT team identified public and private research and development (R&D) and improvements in cell efficiency as the major factors contributing to a 99 percent reduction in module costs since 1980.
..
the top factors contributing to PV cost reduction are not static over time.
..
Wood Mackenzie forecasts that spot prices for modules could fall from $0.30 per watt-DC to $0.18 per watt-DC in the next five years, a 40 percent drop.
..
"All of the material inputs to making a solar panel are still falling,"
..
"..solar is [already] cost-competitive with natural gas and coal in most geographies in the United States. We've already reached that threshold."
"



Feb 28, 2019
EVERY one of the many science website on the issue I have seen says renewables are now ('already' if not a long time before) generally CHEAPER than fossil fuels (and also MUCH CHEAPER than nuclear) and NO science website say they are more expensive than fossil fuels.
The assertion repeatedly made by posters here that renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels is CLEARLY simply a LIE.
PLEASE STOP LYING!
Renewables are generally CHEAPER than fossil fuels.

Feb 28, 2019
-so Suck it up you fossil fuel lovers.

Feb 28, 2019
humy
PLEASE STOP LYING!
Thanks for taking the time to post thoughtful responses humy. I am afraid that asking for truth from folks like aksdad, MR, Willie Ward etc. etc. - has been tried over and over. In the age of Trump - truth no longer matters.

Mar 01, 2019
humy

Conventional nuclear is expensive, and has to be because the configuration is inherently dangerous. Thorium salt systems are by nature far safer and more efficient, burning 100% of a cheaper fuel, as opposed to the 2% of uranium burned before the rods fail in conventional piles. Thorium reactors have been demonstrated, and have the potential to be both cheap and safe.
We may devise some other big tech improvements to escape the nuclear need, such as batteries ten or more times cheaper, more reliable, and durable than we have (which would also finish off ICEs), or 90% efficient solar panels, but not much looks likely there. One can hope.
Immediate best step is to convert all coal plants to natural gas as a way to cut emissions sharply and quickly, then head for wind/solar/thorium.

Mar 01, 2019
Thorium reactors ... have the potential to be both cheap and safe.
skystare
I have no doubt about the "safe" part; yes, they can be made safe enough. BUT; WHEN will they be made "cheap"? Certainly NOT any time soon. Perhaps in ~80 ~300 years time? In the mean time, we ALREADY have the far cheaper renewables thus it would be stupid not to not use renewables instead of fossil fuels and nuclear.
Also in the mean time, the cost of renewables and energy storage systems are going down all the time including NOW and thus will soon become massively EVEN CHEAPER.
We may devise some other big tech improvements to escape the nuclear need, such as batteries ten or more times cheaper,...90% efficient solar panels,
NO. We don't need any of those things. Renewables are ALREADY generally cheaper than fossil fuels and/or nuclear even taking account costs of energy storage. I have ALREADY shown you the science weblinks showing this. There is NO "nuclear need"

Mar 01, 2019
humy
What sort of energy storage system can we put in place in the next five years that will keep the heat and power on at 5 am on a calm -40C night in a city like Edmonton, Canada? That can be fed entirely by wind and solar?

Mar 01, 2019
Check this out
https://www.utili.../514566/

and this
https://www.green...citation

Then look up how the new Vogtle nuclear powerplants will have wholesale prices over 15 cents/kWh versus the 2.1 - 3.6 cents/kWh of renewables plus battery storage.

Mar 01, 2019
What sort of energy storage system can we put in place in the next five years that will keep the heat and power on at 5 am on a calm -40C night in a city like Edmonton, Canada? That can be fed entirely by wind and solar
skystare

Why "fed ENTIRELY by wind and solar"? Why impose that completely stupid arbitrary limitation? What is wrong with INCLUDING hydroelectric, with its energy storage ability, and other renewables? And why not include a supergrid instead to avoid energy storage? And what sort of nuclear power can we realistically can AFFORD to put in place in the next five years, despite every current kind being wildly more expensive than the renewable alternatives (as shown by my weblinks), that will keep the heat and power on at 5 am on a calm -40C night in a city like Edmonton, Canada?

Mar 01, 2019
The exact cost of solar energy depends on which country and the context. But see;
https://www.busin...amp;IR=T

"...The cost of producing solar power is rapidly declining: It now costs $50 to produce one megawatt-hour of solar power, according to a new analysis.
Coal, on the other hand, costs $102 per megawatt-hour to produce.
...
The cost of producing one megawatt-hour of electricity — a standard way to measure electricity production — is now around $50 for solar power, according to Lazard's math. The cost of producing one megawatt-hour of electricity from coal, by comparison, is $102 — more than double the cost of solar. ..."

Even if you have no sole and don't cure about the future of humanity and are only interested in cost of living, it would be completely STUPID not to exploit any of the cheaper source of energy (solar, wind, etc.) to reduce our consumption of the more expensive fossil fuels.


Mar 01, 2019
skystare
Thorium reactors have been demonstrated, and have the potential to be both cheap and safe
Then build one - and let's actually see the numbers. Get a group together - talk to Bill Gates (vocal supporter of nukes) - and have him take $10 billion - and use it to build a LFTR. Let's actually see the numbers. If you are right - he will get good return on his $10 billion. We can show you all day long - how much wind and solar costs. If LFTR's really are cost competitive - we all get to do a happy dance. I don't believe it for a minute - but would love nothing more than to be wrong.

Mar 02, 2019
humy
As I said in the beginning, hydro is geographically limited. There just isn't much available in central North America. Super grid is a good idea, but line losses are a concern past a few hundred miles.

Mar 02, 2019
We are on the first rung (maybe second) of a long journey to replace an electrical system - the backbone of which is coal and gas. That transition is going to take a long time - unless we are willing to shut down the bulk of the current system overnight - and build out an alternative system. That is going to be very costly. The middle road - is the one we are currently on - replacing units as they age out - with what ever new technology we select (which will probably be quiet a mixture). At current rate - the transition will probably take another 50 years. There is much mis-information put out by the anti renewables community. Renewables can - and probably will be the technology of choice as we go forward. Intermitency is a problem with wind and solar - but surmountable. The solutions will be a combination of storage, transmission, demand control etc. Transmission losses are manageable - around 3% per 1,000 Km.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more