Photo by: Pixabay user Free-Photos

Fossil fuel production and combustion is a major driver of climate change, and can also directly affect our health.


Why it Matters: From the electricity that lights your home to the car you drive to work, modern life has relied on fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. But burning them creates climate change and releases pollutants that lead to early death, heart attacks, respiratory disorders, stroke, exacerbation of asthma, and absenteeism at school and work. It may even be related to autism spectrum disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

Natural Gas Leaks: In 2015-2016, a months-long leak from a processed natural gas (PNG) well in Aliso Canyon, California became the largest single accidental release of greenhouse gasses in U.S. history. It caused the evacuation of 5,790 households, and raised health concerns for nearby residents due to potential exposures to methane and benzene.

  • The Aliso Canyon site was a repurposed oil well from 1956. More than 10,000 similar wells have since been identified nationwide, thanks to a 2018 federal ruling that forced energy companies to reveal well designs.
  • Most of these repurposed wells were built prior to 1979, and about 210 were built before 1917.
  • Older wells rely on a single metal pipe to contain the gas. A failure at any point could release large amounts of a major greenhouse gas, which would harm nearby residents’ health.
  • Out of nearly 400 natural underground storage facilities in the U.S., 296 of them have one or more of these older repurposed wells. They are in 32 states.

The Costs of Coal: Harvard Chan School studies estimate that the impacts of coal, and the waste stream it generates, are costing the U.S. public a third to over one-half a trillion dollars annually.

  • Health and environmental hazards stem from exploration, extraction, processing, transport and combustion of coal, as well as the large amount of air and water pollutants generated.
  • Coal combustion is still used in over 600 U.S. power plants, and contributes to global warming.

The Bottom Line: Burning and producing fossil fuels of any sort has a major impact on climate change, air quality, and public health. Since the industrial revolution, those three areas have become inextricably linked.


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Dr. Aaron Bernstein

Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH

Aaron examines the human health effects of global environmental changes with the aim of promoting a deeper understanding of these subjects among students, educators, policy makers, and the public.

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Drew Michanowicz DrPH, CPH

Drew’s research interests are related to poorly understood and emerging environmental hazards on both global- and community-level scales.

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Jonathan Buonocore Sc.D

Jonathan focuses on the health, environmental, and climate impacts of energy, and the benefits of reducing carbon emissions—commonly called “health co-benefits.”

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Kathy Fallon Lambert

Kathy examines how big data and models can be used to quantify the health and environment benefits of actions to mitigate climate change.

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