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Health Impacts of Fossil Fuels

Aside from climate change, fossil fuels with all of the chemicals that are found in them or used to extract them can be seriously dangerous to health. A study from the Clean Energy and Climate Change Office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Americans spend an estimated $886.5billion ($860,000,000,000) each year on health conditions related to the use of fossil fuels.  Let’s put that in perspective, their spending on this is roughly 8 times the entire NHS budget for every health issue.

 

Close to 1.3 million deaths annually are due to air pollution and a further 2 million to household pollution. This pollution is a result of by-products of fossil fuels.   Although CO2 emissions grab most of the media attention, there are numerous other pollutants caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.  Listed below are some of the pollutants and their potential consequences: –

 

Benzene is a well-established carcinogen with specific links to leukaemia as well as breast and urinary tract cancer.  People are exposed to it from inhaling automobile exhaust and gasoline fumes, industrial burning such as oil and coal combustion, and exposure to fracking fluids.

 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NO2) are two primary examples of particle-forming air pollutants (particulate matter) from coal power plants. Particulate matter is known to contribute to serious health problems, including lung cancer and other cardiopulmonary mortality. SO2 and NO2 are both highly toxic to human health, and contribute directly. to thousands of hospitalizations, heart attacks, and deaths annually.  SO2 is particularly dangerous for children. Studies correlate SO2 emissions from petroleum refineries — even in lower exposure levels over time — to higher rates of childhood asthma in children who live or attend school in proximity to those refineries. Similarly, small particles of NO2 can penetrate deeply into sensitive lung tissue and damage it, causing premature death in extreme cases. Inhalation of such particles is associated with emphysema and bronchitis.

 

Formaldehyde is a carcinogen with known links to leukemia and rare nasopharyngeal cancers, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde is highly toxic regardless of method of intake. It is a potent allergen and genotoxic. Studies have linked spontaneous abortions, congenital malformations, low birth weights, infertility, and endometriosis to formaldehyde exposure. Epidemiological studies link exposure to formaldehyde to DNA alteration. It also contributes to ground-level ozone. Formaldehyde is commonly used in “fracking” — although, the industry does not report the details of its use.

 

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) – Many PAHs are known human carcinogens and genetic mutagens. In addition, there are particular prenatal health risks: prenatal exposure to PAHs is linked to childhood asthma, low birth weight, adverse birth outcomes including heart malformations, and DNA damage. Additionally, recent studies link exposure to childhood behavior disorders; researchers from Columbia University, in a 2012 Columbia University study, found a strong link between prenatal PAH exposure and early childhood depression. Infants found to have elevated PAH levels in their umbilical cord blood were 46% more likely to eventually score highly on the anxiety/depression scale than those with low PAH levels in cord blood. The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

 

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin. It damages the brain and the nervous system either through inhalation, ingestion, or contact with the skin. It is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children. It is known to disrupt the development of the in-vitro brain. In low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span, and causing learning disabilities. High dose prenatal and infant exposures to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss, and numbness of the fingers and toes.  Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of airborne mercury emissions in the United States. The mercury emitted from such plants can travel thousands of miles; scientists recently linked the chemical fingerprint of mercury found in fish in deep portions of the Pacific Ocean to coal power plants thousands of miles away in Asia.

 

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless radioactive gas which causes lung cancer. It is the second largest cause of lung cancer in the US after cigarette smoking. About 20,000 people per year die from lung cancer attributed to radon exposure according to the National Cancer Institute. Further, there is no known threshold below which radon exposures carries no risk.

 

Hydrofluoric acid (HF) is “one of the most dangerous acids known.” HF can immediately damage lungs, leading to chronic lung disease; contact on skin penetrates to deep tissue, including bone, where it alters cellular structure. HF can be fatal if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through skin.The senior laboratory safety coordinator at the University of Tennessee said, “Hydrofluoric Acid is an acid like no other. It is so potent that contact with it may not even be noticed until long after serious damage has been done.” Hydrofluoric Acid is a common ingredient used in oil and gas extraction. Numerous studies, including recent ones conducted by both The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the United Steelworkers Union (USU) cite the oil industry’s abysmal safety record as a high risk factor for a major HF accident; over the past decade, over 7,600 accidental chemical releases from refineries have been reported by the industry. In the past three years alone, a total of 131 “minor” accidents involved HF.