Fossil Fuel Use and Health Issues 3 – Visualizing the Pollution and how it affects our health – Part 2

In the previous post we outlined some of the health problems associated with fossil fuel pollution.  In this post we delve deeper into the actual problems, not to scare you, but to make you aware that this is not something that happens somewhere else.  This is everyone’s problem and is happening where you live, here and now! 

Ground-level Ozone forms when volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mainly from gasoline and diesel combustion, react with the sun’s ultraviolet rays.  It reaches its worst levels in the afternoon and early evening after the sun has been out for several hours.  As such is most noticeable during the summer months but is still prevalent even on a cold winter’s day.  It is a strong irritant to air passages in the throat and lungs causing them to constrict causing difficulty in breathing.   More notable health problems include: aggravated respiratory disease such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma; wheezing, chest pain, dry throat, headache or nausea; persistent sore throat and coughs that indicate lung damage; compromised immune system; and feeling weak and fatigued with little motivation to get up and go.  The only solutions, besides not creating ground level ozone in the first place, is to stay indoors with a whole house filtration system, move to a remote area well away from major transportation areas, or to walk around outside with a specific ozone filtering respiration mask.     

Particulate Matter (PM) and Wildfire Smoke is a complex mixture of soot and smoke from fires and power stations, metal particles, nitrates, sulfates (from all fossil fuel combustion), and tire rubber particulates, some of which react with sunlight (i.e. oxides of nitrogen – NOx).  What makes the particulates dangerous is the specific size of the particles.  The smaller the particles, the more dangerous they tend to be.  Larger particles can be irritants but are less likely to have long lasting health effects, while fine particulate particles can cause life long and even fatal problems, especially to the lungs and heart.  We hear a lot about ‘fracking’ and the many chemicals (over 650 proprietary chemicals) used during the fracking process, but almost unknown is the grave danger that an come from being downwind of a ‘blowout’ where the exceptionally fine sand (less than 10 micron) used in bulk in fracking, if inhaled, used can cause fatal silicosis.  

Long-term exposure to particulate pollution can result in significant health problems including: respiratory problems from irritation of the airways that causes persistent coughing, difficulty in breathing, and decreased lung function; development of asthma or further aggravation of existing asthma with further development of chronic  respiratory disease in children and adults with already impaired respiration; increases in chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive lung disease; onset of heart problems such as irregular heartbeat and nonfatal heart attacks leading to increased levels of death in people with heart or lung disease, including death from lung cancer. 

Just like Ozone, the only solutions, besides not creating these PMs  in the first place, is to stay indoors with a whole house filtration system, move to a remote area well away from major transportation areas, or to walk around outside with a specific respiration mask for fine particulates.  Wild fires are on the increase, so being aware of what is happening in your area and knowledge of the wind patterns affecting your area will help to minimize being outdoors when these conditions are severe.  Letting your neighbors know if you have problems and having a medical emergency plan should symptoms become severe is a given.  Most at risk for chronic problems are young children and seniors, although acute symptoms can occur for anyone (e.g. fracking blowout).   Keep an adequate supply of your medications (five days or more) on hand should you suffer from any respiratory ailment.  Listen to local news, weather forecasts and air quality alerts provided by the local air district specialists.  While we gave specifics above for susceptible people, be aware that even healthy and especially active outdoors people can expect to experience temporary symptoms, such as: irritation of the eyes, nose and throat (dry raspy throat); Coughing as if trying to clear the throat; tightness in the chest; and shortness of breath especially during the latter parts of the day.

PMs, Ozone, and VOCs are always present because of the burning of fossil fuels.  Here in the front range they are readily visible when one comes back down from the mountains back to the front range towns.  The brown smog can be seen as a layer that hangs over the towns and cities.  Many athletes comment that they can exercise and run easier uphill at 10,000 ft than they can at 5000 ft in the front range.  The difference is merely the air quality.  Coal fired power plants, fracking, and millions of vehicles burning diesel and gasoline make for poor air quality on the front range.  This can worsen when easterly wind patterns push the polluted air up against the mountains thereby concentrating the pollution and exacerbating health issues.  Clean air is a basic right that we ALL share.  While we make many excuses for burning fossil fuels as an inevitable consequence for our modern way of living, that mindset is completely flawed!  There are alternatives that we all can support that give us the convenience of heat, light and transportation options, that give us clean air to live healthily.  Next blog posts will be about these alternatives we can all support.  After all, what is good about pollution?            

Understanding Modern Energy 2 – The wonder and dreadfulness of Fossil Fuels – A reality check.

The fossil fuels (FFs) – Coal, Oil, and Thermogenic Natural Gas (tNG – also called Methane) – are all fossils in the sense that they are made of compressed remnant anaerobically (without oxygen) decayed material from ancient organisms 100–500 million years in environments that existed at the bottom of the ocean, in deep lakes, and in swamp sediments.  All were converted to a substance call Kerogen and depending on the conditions in which they formed deep underground became the FFs we extract from the ground.  That’s the basics.  A key feature to think about is that these FFs were mostly photosynthetic organisms, i.e. they grew by extracting carbon dioxide from the air as do modern plants to form high energy sugars and other compounds used to build the plant’s structure.  The high energy chemical bonds were maintained and concentrated over the time they were transformed into Kerogen.  As a transportable energy source they had much more energy per equivalent mass than say wood.  Since ancient times, wood burning had been a major source of energy for humankind.  As populations grew so the forests shrank rapidly, since trees need many years to grow and mature and forest management was not thought about until the mid-1800s with extensive forest depletion in Europe.  About that time large exposed surface layers of coal had been discovered and coal became the natural fuel to use for the growing technology of the industrial revolution.  While swamp gas and tNG had been known about for centuries, commercial gas wells started in the 1820 and it was mainly used for lighting streets.  It wasn’t until safe gas lines could be built that it was finally piped into homes for heating and cooking in the early 1900s.

The FFs have been around for nearly 200 years so now everyone takes them for granted and as always having been there.   What we often forget is the pollution that occurs with FFs.  Until the 1970s the intense primary pollution has always been a problem and the reason for many respiratory deaths and lung problems over the many decades since their introduction.  Yes, they are a highly convenient form of energy, but the drawbacks were obvious with the frequent, intense, and dangerous smogs.  The black sooty pollution also coated everything in a black grime and acidic deposition (rain/snow) that also ate away at stone buildings.  And in case we think extracting FFs is benign, the mining and extraction jobs in these industries are some of the most dangerous in the world.  Accidental explosions and fires from extracting FFs are a common hazard as are the transportation and processing of these sources.

The other consequences of burning the FFs are that when we extract and release the energy, the carbon dioxide and other chemicals that had been stored underground for millions of years is released back into the atmosphere.  The thing most people seem to forget is that this trapped carbon dioxide is now added back to the atmosphere approaching levels that once existed in an ancient past.  Ancient periods (e.g. the Carboniferous period), in which the bulk of the Carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere during the creation of the FFs, had an atmosphere in which the planet was like a hot swamp all over (including the poles during the summers) where lots of surface swamp Natural Gas was also being produced.  (Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide.  The greenhouse effect is a normal process of how the planet stays warm anytime.)  Scientific evidence shows that the planet at the time of the Carboniferous period may have been 10-15oF hotter than it is today.  To be fair, some of that heat was also a result of an ‘equatorial circumventing thermohaline ocean current’ rather the ‘polar thermohaline circulation’ we have today.’  Another consequence of a warmer planet and denser vegetation is the increased movement of water (Water Cycle – evaporation, condensation, and evapotranspiration) into the atmosphere with increased clouds and atmospheric water vapor, which also increases the heat trapping ability of the atmosphere.  Yet, to ignore the consequences of how much heat trapping ability that carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor have is to ignore the scientific realities of atmospheric change outside anything natural happening.

In a nutshell, we are fast creating atmospheric conditions that resemble the carboniferous era but fortunately without the circumventing equatorial current’s additional effects of pre-35 million years ago.  (About that time, continental drift caused North and South America to meet up and Africa to connect with Europe and Asia Minor forcing the thermohaline current to move south under Cape Horn, South Africa and then north towards Greenland thus incrementally cooling the planet as the ocean waters cooled nearer the polar regions.)   Thank heavens for small mercies.  If we continually burn all the FFs the released gasses, that have been stored for hundreds of millions of years, may eventually give us a 10-12oF raise in temperature.  The planet will readily adapt – it always has, but can human society adapt to a radically different world in which mass energy will be need to survive but most of the FF energy sources have been used.  Ah, I hear some say, won’t we have renewable energy options – yes, but……

Just in case we forget, by only focusing on the heat trapping ability of atmospheric chemicals, the immediate problem of FFs pollution is also growing exponentially with the increased extracting of FFs over the last several decades.  Despite the 1970s clear air act, we are still increasingly bathed daily in Acid Deposition, Photochemical Smog, Ground Zone, Nitrous Oxides, Peroxyacyl Nitrates (PANs), and a host of other toxic and irritant pollution resulting from burning of FFs.  Health problems and deaths from FF pollution is on the increase globally.  As I said in the first blog post, what is bad about carbon?  What is good about pollution?

Now if you were to only listen to politicians and the FF energy sector bosses you might think that we had endless supplies of FFs.  The reality is that there is only a finite amount of organic organisms that were made in to the FFs.  All the easy to find FFs have long been discovered and already extracted.  (I have heard some non-scientists insist that these FFs are an ongoing process today, if not much slower process, but besides the pollution and heat trapping atmospheric gasses we have only to wait a few tens of millions of years for them to be ready to tap.)  No, another big problem that most people seem to be ignoring is the speed at which we are using these FFs, and it is exponentially growing usage.  To explain exponential usage, imagine you were stranded in the desert and had 10 gallons of water to drink.  If you rationed yourself to one pint a day the water would last 80 days.  If, however, there were two of you, the water would only last 40 days.  If four of you, 20 days.  If eight of you, 10 days.   You get the obvious idea; The more of you there are, the faster the water will be used.   That is happening with the FFs because the rest of the world is also consuming FFs as fast as we have been in the westernized world for the last two hundred years.  All the data from the energy companies, governmental sources, wherever, all show signs of serious depletion of FFs.  We are running out of large sources of FFs.  And the timeframe is a couple of decades, not a century or more.  So the FFs were wonderful in helping us to create our modernized world, but dreadful with the massive pollution consequences and exponential usage fast reaching depletion in the near future.

Understanding Modern Energy 1 – What it is and where it comes from.

Welcome to the new Blog by Renewables Now Loveland.

Thank you for visiting this Blog.  My name is Richard and I was a professor of Environmental and Sustainability Studies for many years, even writing textbooks to try and highlight the options and possibilities of sustainable technologies and sustainable living.

Since we’re talking about renewable energy it would be good to start with a basic understanding of energy overall.  Don’t worry, it won’t be a grim discussion on physics, but we do need to understand why renewables are a big issue and why they should be seriously considered as we move into the energy needs of the 21st century.

Our modern world with all its wonderful technologies exists only because we found wonderful sources of energy that allowed the technologies we take for granted to be made.  If you could take a Greek or Roman scholar from the past and throw them into the world of revolutionary America (1776), they would understand how the technology worked.  Even the guns and canons being used would be comprehensible to those ancient scholars.  Bring them 242 years further forward (2018) and those same scholars would conclude that our world must work on magic.  The great leap forward was possible because we found high energy sources that allowed technological leaps forward.  One of the first was the use of coal, then gas and oil to heat and light our modern world as well as provide energy for transportation.

Even today, most people do not comprehend the amazing enormity of what happens all the time.  For most, electricity is just a socket on the wall – behind that socket is a stream of electrons – made by a power station – that run through wires into our homes and businesses.  For most of the time during our technological world of the last 200 years, electricity was made by burning ‘something’ to heat a boiler of water to produce steam under pressure that would spin a turbine.  This turbine produces the electricity we take for granted. Most of the environmental problems we face today come from what was, and still is, being burned to heat the boiler.  Other problems stem from what is used as an energy source to provide us with transportation as we use to move around so effectively (or not as gridlock becomes the norm).

Between tens and Hundreds of millions ago, plant life that decayed in anerobic conditions (like swamps, of which there used to be a lot more around the planet back then) preserved the energy from photosynthesis captured within the plant structure.  Over time this plant mass was transformed by geological processes into Coal, Oil, or underground Natural Gas (as opposed to surface gas from present day swamps) – the fossil Fuels (FFs).  These high-quality energy sources were used to create electricity or to power our transports, with Natural Gas (NG) used to run furnaces for heat and industry and cooking ranges, and today replacing coal in many previous coal-fired power stations.  Of course, anything that can spin a turbine creates electricity, so many large rivers were damned to allow water to flow across the turbines creating hydro-electricity.  Those were the big four for many years until the advent of nuclear power (after WWII) when the heat from decaying radioactive chemicals were used to heat the water in the boiler (same basic idea – heat water to produce steam).

In a nutshell, the big problems are that all this plant material laid down over millions of years is limited.  We have been using it so fast and in such enormous amounts that it is no longer the plentiful source it once was.  Burning all this material is the same as burning wood in a campfire – it produces lots of smoke – and since the FFs are concentrated energy, the smoke and emissions are many times more concentrated as well.   Those who grew up in the post WWII years will recall the thick killer grey-smogs that plagued our cities and towns.  We have historical accounts of the horrors of coal pollution since the late 1800s from Coal fired power plants all around the growing industrialized countries of the world.  The reason we don’t see the intense grey-smogs anymore is because of the clean air act of 1970 (here, and also in other industrialized countries).  Coal burning had to be regulated and the power plant output of smoke had to be treated.  Auto-emission also had to be treated (using catalytic converters on the exhaust) to reduce the intensity of the emissions.  The problem of auto-emission is the production of photochemical brown-smog.  All carbon sources fuels produce smog chemicals and ground level ozone pollution.  So when we hear from carbon lovers about what is bad about carbon, my answer is always, what’s so good about pollution?   In the 1970s there was a big push to move away from FFs to renewable energy that didn’t burn something to produce electricity, instead using technology that directly captured the energy of the sun or its derivatives (e.g. wind, ground heating) – sources that would last as long as the sun burned.

We’ll end this blog post with the caveat that there is no perfect energy capture or generation system.  What we will do in subsequent blog posts is explore all the options and recognize those that are clearly better for our health and the health of the environment, and also those that will promote a sustainable world of equity rather than a world of limitation and strife.