We know that fossil fuel energy is damaging our planet. But using fossil fuels doesn’t just hurt our planet, it hurts us.
Burning fossil fuels releases particulates, sulfur dioxide gas, and other compounds that can be harmful to human health. In fact, it’s estimated that tens of thousands of people in the United States die early every year due to fossil fuel emissions.
Just how much of an impact these compounds have on your daily health depends on a number of factors, including toxicity levels, time of exposure, and age. However, across all demographics, there are some very common health issues that have been tied to fossil fuel use.
The content of the air we breathe obviously has a big impact on the health of our lungs. Studies have shown that asthma, a condition that impacts an estimated 300 million people in the world, is exacerbated by compounds released during the burning of coal. Exposure to air pollution has also been connected to onsets of dangerous pneumonia and bronchitis. In fact, a research team from McMaster University in Canada found that the burning of fossil fuels led to an increase in hospitalizations for pneumonia.
According to an Environmental Health Perspectives study, particles from coal burning are five times more harmful to the heart than from other fossil fuels, such as oil or natural gas. Mercury, arsenic, selenium, and other toxins are so small that they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. These particles can accumulate on arterial linings and even attach to fatty deposits already there, triggering a heart attack. Mercury has also been associated with thickened arteries and high blood pressure.
Developmental and behavioral problems can also occur with exposure to Mercury. The metal is problematic in lakes, streams, and oceans where it works its way into the fish we eat. It has been connected with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, lower IQs, 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.
The Good News
The good news is that the government is now regulating many of these pollutants. Back in 2011, the EPA finalized the first national standards to reduce the number of air pollutants, many of which are listed above. Their main goal was to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollutants that came from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Because of the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, as well as this most recent EPA development, the medical waste, and municipal waste industries have reduced their mercury emissions by over 95 percent.
The last industry that emits a large number of harmful pollutants is the power plant industry. As stated by the EPA, in their new 2011 standards, they are:
- Preventing the release of 90% of the mercury in coal burned in power plants
- Reducing 88% of acid gas emissions from power plants
- Reducing 41% of sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants
This means that even just regulating even some of the most harmful pollutants still results in a significant change in air quality. Luckily, this will bring good, if not great, improvements in health over the coming years.