One unusual factor that is noticeable everywhere during the Covid-19 lockdown is the improvement in the air quality, because of the high decrease of fossil fuels used in transportation. While we may be concerned about a microscopic virus killing people, that same concern should be as prevalent for the quality of air in which fossil fuel combustion is as harmful to all of us, but especially to susceptible populations. It is estimated that 230,000 people in the USA and 3.61 million people worldwide die each year from fossil fuel pollution related problems. Why are we not scared about those death numbers?
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. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018 Jan; 15(1): 16.
It is estimated that in the United States $100 billion is spent annually in health-related damages. Burning FFs is much more than just release of carbon dioxide, it is also the release of primary and secondary pollutants such as fine particulate matter, ozone, sulfates, formaldehyde and benzene. The particulates are so small they are easily breathed in and lodge deep in the lungs. Industrial processes such as incineration, smelting, and mining release sulfur dioxide, which can permanently damage the lungs, while lead is a known trigger of brain and nervous system damage. There are 10 main health problems that are commonly associated with fossil fuel combustion.
Asthma – one of most common aliments affecting more than 300 million people (nearly 4%) globally per year. Asthma is an inflammation and narrowing of the airways in the lungs such that sufferers have great difficulty breathing, even becoming so severe that airway obstruction leads to medical emergencies. The prevalence of Pneumonia is seen more requiring hospitalization, especially in those already medically compromised with other medical conditions, but the young and aged are particularly at risk.
Bronchitis – 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. Nitrogen dioxide is a known lung irritant and industrial pollutant and is regulated by the US-EPA.
Upper Respiratory and Eye Irritation – Ground level Ozone, is known to cause significant eye and throat irritation, as well as the lining of the nose and throat among a range of respiratory problems. Hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride, and other acidic gases created from fossil fuel emissions also do so as well. A mixture of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides with atmospheric elements can create acid rain, which harm trees, fish, and wildlife.
Heart Attack – Particulates from burning coal are five times more harmful to the heart than burning other fossil fuels. 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.
Heart Disease – Pollutants from factories, power plants, and refineries cause numerous compounds such as ozone that cause inflammation in the cardiovascular system stimulating or cardiac problems in people already susceptible to heart conditions. Research shows that Mercury emissions (common with coal burning) has been associated with thickened arteries and high blood pressure.
Neurological Problems – Mercury emissions from burning coal and common with cement factories and boiler emissions causes developmental and behavioral problems. Mercury is particularly 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 is also believed that mercury exposure via a mothers exposure negatively affects over 300,000 fetuses each year through the placenta.
Cancer – Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (mutagens and carcinogens) cause elevated incidences of cancer beginning with fetus exposure through 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, and dioxins are well associated with lymphomas, soft tissue sarcomas, and stomach carcinomas.
Organ Damage – Brain, liver, and kidney damage are known to occur with mercury exposure. Even if people are not directly exposed to it, this toxic metal is often present in foods.
Immune System Problems – Most of the FF emissions such as aromatic compounds, dioxins, heavy metals, lead, and hydrocarbons cause immune system problems. This is particularly problematic in young children that have immature immune systems and immuno-compromised people. Any bacteria or viral pathogens are more likely to negatively affect such people with less capacity to naturally immune-resist such infections.