Global Warming, Fossil Fuels, Air Quality, and Health

Everybody wants to be healthy, and we go to considerable lengths to achieve the same. Preventive care, diet and exercise all contribute to good health. There are factors however which are beyond our individual capacity to control. Global warming is one of those things that we have to address collectively. It comes about due to the release of certain air pollutants. Reducing these pollutants will not only help mitigate the direct environmental damage but also improve our health.

Air pollution has been linked to several of the leading causes of death in the United States. Asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, and stroke have all been shown to be linked in multiple peer reviewed articles in major medical journals. Even conditions as diverse as Type II diabetes and Alzheimer’s’ disease have shown correlations with air pollution levels.

Chronic exposure to gasses such as ozone and nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter

particulate matter

particulate matter

cause an inflammatory reaction in sensitive tissues and contribute to poor health. The source of the pollutants is a result of our quest for the cheapest possible energy sources to power our lives. There is a deal with the devil in cheap energy sources, mostly fossil fuels. Burning coal and oil and to a lesser extent natural gas result in the production of these unhealthy pollutants.

That good news is that the USEPA through the Clean Air Act regulates these pollutants and constantly reviews the scientific data supporting limitations of pollutant release. The act was passed in 1963 and has been significantly amended several times to tighten air quality standards. Enforcement of the act has led to considerable improvement of air quality, but currently something like one third of Americans live in counties which are out of containment.OzoneFormationDiagram

In 1990 Congress directed the EPA to conduct occasional scientific reviews as to the costs and benefits of air quality regulations. A 2009 study by the National Research Council finds that the cost for health care from one coal fired power plant is 156 million dollars per year. Collectively 62 billion dollars a year is spent as a result of burning coal to make electricity. This is due to the health effects of pollutants at currently allowed levels. Another study showed that over 20 years of clean air act regulations, one dollar spent on air quality protection resulted in a savings of 44 dollars in health care costs. The EPA estimates that the investment of 65 billion dollars in 2020 will save a total of 2 trillion dollars in health care.

One argument to revitalize the economy is to cut regulations, thus lowering the cost of doing business. Lowering air quality standards may save business and the consumer money on energy production but will greatly increase health care costs- out of proportion with the savings on energy costs. This is not the time to try to save money limiting the actions of the EPA, regardless of the budget cutting fervor in congress. We can pay a little for air quality but overall save a lot by supporting strict air quality standards, even if it means abandoning coal fired electricity production.

There is no question that somewhere in the future we will stop burning fossil fuels to produce energy, whether it is due to depletion of the resources or our recognition of the harmful effects to health and the environment. Any and all programs which get us away from fossil fuel consumption will benefit society. Ultimately we need clean sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar which release no air pollutants.

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