There are various parts of the fossil fuel production cycle that can very negatively impact human health. Air pollution originating from power plants, factories, natural gas extraction/fracking sites, and the vehicles transporting these fossil fuels causes millions of deaths each year and is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Exposure to this air pollution can cause heart attacks, strokes, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), lung cancer, acute pulmonary respiratory symptoms in children, reduced lung function, asthma, and preterm birth. Fossil fuel production can also contaminate drinking water, soil, and therefore food chains with toxic, carcinogenic chemicals. Here is a great resource that lists the health impacts the use of various fossil fuels can have.
Check out Health Care Without Harm and the Healthy Energy Initiatives’ briefing paper on The Health Impacts of Energy Choices to see a comparison of the health impacts of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), nuclear, and renewable energy (wind, solar, biofuels, and hydroelectric) including public health risks, occupational health risks, and climate risks. (page 8).
What is High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing, or “fracking”?
In the United States, a type of drilling for natural gas, hydraulic fracturing or fracking, has created a natural gas boom in many states. Fracking has been erroneously characterized as a “bridge fuel” as we transition to clean and renewable energy sources. Fracking has a number of health and climate impacts and is not a feasible solution to the climate crisis. Learn more in the Oil Change International report Burning the Gas ‘Bridge Fuel’ Myth: Why Gas is Not Clean, Cheap, or Necessary.
Oil and gas companies use high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), or “fracking”, to release natural gas and oil trapped between layers of dense shale rock found deep below the earth’s surface. Prior to fracking, gas companies drilled vertically for thousands of feet. In HVHF, drilling starts vertically then turns horizontally, creating a fracturing path extending up to 5,000 feet underground. When the well is completed, millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand, salts and up to 300 tons of chemicals are pumped into the well at high pressure to break up the shale, releasing the gas and oil. The “flowback” water returning to the surface contains fracking chemicals, highly concentrated salts, oil, grease, heavy metals and naturally occurring radioactive material. Normal water treatment facilities are unable to filter out hazardous chemicals and radiation in flowback water. EnviRN Evidence provides a great resource explaining fracking and its health impacts. The sixth edition of the fracking “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking”, summarizes and links to a compilation of reports, peer-reviewed articles and investigative reporting on fracking’s dangerous impacts on health.
Fossil fuels makeup more than just our energy systems. Petrochemicals, derived from petroleum and natural gas, are used in many industries like polymers, synthetic fibers, synthetic rubber, plastics, soaps and detergents, solvents, drugs, fertilizers, pesticides, explosives, paints, and flooring and insulating materials – many of the things we use everyday. As natural gas production ramps up and consumer demand for fossil fuel based energy is falling, oil and gas companies are looking for new ways to make money. One way to do that is to sell ethane, a byproduct of natural gas drilling that can be used to make plastic. We are now seeing investments in “cracker plants”, facilities that heat up ethane to make ethylene which is then used to create plastic nurdles, or small pellets that form the basics of most plastic products. Not only do cracker plants contribute to plastic pollution, but these facilities are polluting especially to the communities located near these plants. Cracker plants release tons of hazardous air pollutants, including carbon dioxide. Learn more about what a cracker plant is and some of the associated health impacts.
Health Impacts of Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy is often touted as a solution to the climate crisis, as nuclear power plants unlike fossil fuel power plants are considered low carbon emitters. However, what this argument ignores, is that each step in nuclear energy production leads to radioactive and chemical emissions and waste streams, which can contaminate drinking water and food chains and create harm for those living near nuclear reactors. There is also concern for health risks associated with uranium mining, handling of radioactive waste, and accidental spills and releases that contaminate land and water for thousands of years. For example, mining for uranium, used to fuel nuclear reactors, itself has left a toxic legacy of contamination, particularly on Indigenous lands. There are over 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. While the mines are closed, the land remains contaminated as well as homes and water sources with elevated levels of radiation. Nuclear energy is also more expensive when you account for building and running the plant compared to wind and solar.
Learn more about the life-cycle of nuclear power generation and the serious risks to human health in Physicians for Social Responsibility’s factsheet Dirty, Dangerous and Expensive: The Truth about Nuclear Power and resources here.
The most significant way to massively reduce exposure to the harmful substances emitted from fossil fuel production is by switching to clean, renewable energy sources. By switching to renewable energy sources we can alleviate the health burdens experienced by so many undeserving people around the world.
The transition process to renewable energy involves a multi layered approach. Increasing the supply of renewable energy and building a proper network of transmission for the renewable sources would be necessary. This also includes stopping new fossil fuel production and implementing a just transition that prioritizes workers and communities that are dependent on the fossil fuel industry and that have been impacted by fossil fuel extraction and production. Learn more about what a just transition is below. Attention and funding are essential for this to occur. This is why it is so important to urge representatives to focus on this issue and to inform others to do the same.
The health sector can play a vital role in the transition to renewable energy. Health professionals can facilitate discussions about the health impacts of our energy choices, request for health impact assessments and health economic evaluations to be utilized within decision-making on energy projects and policy, invest in or advocate for the investment in clean energy sources for their own health facilities in order to lead by example, and express the health impacts to local and national government representatives and advocate for diverting investments into renewable energy. For more information, Health Care Without Harm provides great resources.
The fight for renewable energy and climate justice is intersectional. ANHE is a part of the Last Chance Alliance which is an organization pushing to build a fossil fuel free future and fight environmental injustice in California. They provide great resources on what Californians are facing due to fossil fuels and how to take effective action.
A Just Transition
To truly and justly transition towards a sustainable future that prioritizes clean energy and fights inequities, we must move from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. To do so we must divest money from the system that prioritizes consumerism, wealth, and power, and redistribute power and resources to local communities. We must create a system where communities and workers have control over decisions that directly impact their livelihood, and invest in initiatives that work to move towards clean energy, better public transportation, food sovereignty, peaceful resolution, and ecosystem restoration. To learn more about a just transition you can visit the Climate Justice Alliance website.