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.

Resources:

How Dangerous are Underground Natural Gas Storage Wells?

Study explores the risks of aging infrastructure throughout the United States.

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Estimating Public Health Impacts from Individual Power Plants

A tool to help policy-makers design policies and interventions.

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Health Co-Benefits of Carbon Standards for Existing Power Plants

Analyzing the clean air and health benefits of power plant carbon standards in the U.S.

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Costs and Health Co-Benefits for a U.S. Power Plant Carbon Standard

Reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants can have important “co-benefits” for public health by reducing emissions of air pollutants.

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Mercury Matters 2018: A Science Brief for Journalists and Policymakers

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As world sours on coal, top producer Indonesia tries to sweeten it at home

Our Research Scientist Jonathan Buonocore comments on Indonesia's coal gasification project, saying it would be very difficult to have zero climate impact.

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The World's First Death Attributed to Air Pollution Could Spark the Change We Need

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Cracking down on soot pollution could save thousands of lives—but the EPA won’t do it

There’s overwhelming evidence that air pollution is a serious public health problem, says our Research Scientist Jonathan Buonocore.

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A new study by our Research Scientist Jonathan Buonocore analyzes how air quality warnings can benefit health.

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Climate Change is Making Us Sick

Our Yerby Fellow Dr. Renee Salas comments on the findings from the 2020 Lancet Countdown report and how climate change is harming our health today.

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Doctors Release Their ‘Most Worrying Outlook’ on How Climate Change Is Ruining Our Health

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2020 is a ‘preview’ of how bad things can get if we don’t fix climate change, other systemic problems: Lancet report

In the latest Lancet Countdown report, our Yerby Fellow Dr. Renee Salas says the harms of our converging crises — COVID-19, climate disasters, and systemic racism — are a preview of what lies ahead if we fail to urgently make the necessary investments to protect health.

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Climate change is already a disaster to health, doctors say

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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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Gina McCarthy

Gina McCarthy

A leading advocate for smart, successful strategies to protect public health and the environment for more than 30 years.

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