Burning fossil fuels for energy doesn’t only release carbon dioxide and contribute to climate change. It also releases particulates, sulfur dioxide gas, and other compounds that can be harmful to human health. Ozone, sulfates, and other types of particulate matter are released into the air, as are toxic substances such as formaldehyde and benzene. The particulates that escape are tiny – they can be less than 0.1 micrometers in diameter. Courser ones up to 10 micrometers in diameter can be quite harmful as well. Toxicity, level of exposure, and age (children are highly susceptible to the health effects of fossil fuels) are factors, but here are 10 health problems that are commonly associated with fossil fuel consumption.
Ozone, particulates, and other compounds released during coal burning, for example, can contribute to the development of asthma. The World Health Organization estimates that 300 million people in the world have this condition during any given year, and 20 million people in the United States have it. Asthma is an inflammation and narrowing of the airways in the lungs. People who suffer from it can have trouble breathing and wheeze when they breathe. The inflammatory response can be so severe that airway obstruction leads to medical emergencies.
Studies have connected exposure to air pollution with pneumonia in older adults. A research team from McMaster University in Canada found that exposure to sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter from traffic pollution, which are all also associated with the burning of fossil fuels, increase the risk of older adults being hospitalized for pneumonia. The study was conducted between 2003 and 2005. This lung infection can be caused by germs, particles, or chemicals and is especially a risk for young children and the elderly.
Acute and chronic bronchitis can be caused by fossil fuel particulates. Exposure to nitrogen oxides, especially in young children, can trigger airway inflammation associated with coughing, fatigue, and fever. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates nitrogen dioxide, a known lung irritant and industrial pollutant.
Upper Respiratory and Eye Irritation
Ozone, especially the secondary formation of the gas, can cause significant eye and throat irritation. Hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, and other acidic gases can do so as well. These can irritate the nose and skin too, and cause a range of respiratory problems. The irritants don’t always reach the body from the particles; a mixture of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides with atmospheric elements can create acid rain, which can harm trees, fish, and wildlife.
According to an Environmental Health Perspectives study, particles from coal burning are five times more harmful to the heart than burning other fossil fuels, such as oil or natural gas. Mercury, arsenic, selenium, and other toxins are so small they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. The particles can accumulate on arterial linings and even to fatty deposits already there, triggering a heart attack.
Inflammation in the cardiovascular system can be caused by pollutants from factories, power plants, and refineries. It is caused by compounds such as ozone. Research has found it can react with biological tissues and cause changes in heart rate. The effects can take hold in only a few hours. People who already have heart conditions are most susceptible. Mercury has been associated with thickened arteries and high blood pressure.
Developmental and behavioral problems can occur with exposure to mercury, which is emitted by coal-fired power plants and installations such as cement factories and boilers. The metal is problematic in lakes, streams, and oceans where it can get into fish, which humans consume. It has been connected with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, lower IQ, and impaired memory and motor skills. In the United States, it’s believed mercury exposure may affect over 300,000 infants before they are born.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also known in scientific communities as mutagens and carcinogens. A higher risk of cancer throughout life is possible if these harmful substances reach a fetus from the placenta. Inhalation of toxic organic compounds and chemicals by anyone of any age can increase the risk of lung cancer. Benzene, formaldehyde, cadmium, arsenic, manganese, and lead are known carcinogens. Dioxins have been associated with lymphomas, soft tissue sarcomas, and stomach carcinomas.
Immune System Problems
Several pollutants released when fossil fuels are burned are associated with reduced immune function. These include aromatic compounds, dioxins, heavy metals, lead, and hydrocarbons. In children, the immune system is immature, so any substance that affects it can have more dire consequences. The pathogens associated with contaminated water and air don’t help, increasing their chances of contracting diseases from pollution.
Brain, liver, and kidney damage have been known to occur with mercury exposure. People often aren’t directly exposed to it, but the toxic metal is often present in foods, having gotten into the environment through fossil fuel consumption and industrial processes such as incineration, smelting, and mining. Sulfur dioxide can permanently damage the lungs, while lead is a known trigger of brain and nervous system damage.
Emissions of particulate matter, or soot, are known to cause many health problems, especially respiratory issues that can lead to premature death. Fine particulates from coal plants in the United States may have been responsible for an estimated 13,200 deaths in 2010, according to a Clean Air Task Force report. It also estimated about 20,000 heart attacks and 9,700 hospitalizations due to exposure to particulates.
Power plant emissions represent the largest sources of mercury present in the air, which then settles onto the ground and runs off into water sources. Fossil fuel transportation is also responsible for releasing substantial amounts of nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Regardless of how pollutants are emitted and from what source, there are many compounds associated with burning fossil fuels that can affect human health – many of these conditions can be avoided or abated by reducing exposure and shifting to cleaner methods of energy production.