BUILDING LEADERSHIP to safeguard public health and safety (Post #4 in the Building Leadership Series)Read Now
In our last two blog posts, we discussed the over California families priced out of homes due to unnecessary methane infrastructure, and argued that efficiency, electrification and a shift toward renewable energy can make housing much more affordable by eliminating the infrastructure and associated costs of natural gas. We also discussed how the financial and environmental impacts of fossil fuels use disproportionately hurt lower-income communities.
Electrification and renewable energy can make housing more affordable by reducing one of the biggest and most inequitable costs that low-income households face--energy. The reduction of pollutants associated with burning fossil fuels stands to benefit those same populations, who on average suffer most from the toxic health impacts including asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease and other effects.
But, the public health implications of electrification go far beyond impacts on the poor.
The short, medium and long-term dangers of fossil-fuel pollution on the human population are pervasive and widespread. As the new administration continues the fight to mitigate the impacts of climate change, it shouldn’t forget about the immediate benefits of reducing pollution on human health.
Beyond CO2: The Impacts of Toxic Air Pollutants on Human Health
According to recent report from the World Health Organization, air pollution threatens the health and development of 93 percent of the world’s children under the age of 15 years (1.8 billion children). The report found that as many as 600,000 children die annually from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air. Citizens of rapidly developing countries such as China and India suffer most (according to a recent study, half of children in Delhi will suffer from irreversible lung damage into adulthood).
In the United States, California tops the list as the state with the largest number of polluted cities in the nation. According to a report from the American Lung Association, in 2018 90 percent of Californians lived in counties that received a failing grade for at least one pollutant.
Los Angeles remains the smoggiest place in the country. The state's temperate climate and geography, which can trap polluted air in certain areas, is partially to blame. By increasing average summer temperatures and sparking drought and wildfires, climate change only makes the problem worse.
Climate activism has rightly focused on growing levels of CO2 as the most dangerous and persistent long-term greenhouse gas. But when it comes to human health, it's other combustion-related pollutants -- many of which are also potent greenhouse gasses--that pose the greatest risks.
Ground level ozone pollution from burning fossil fuels aggravates asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis and puts people at risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Particulate pollution, which consists of a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air, can also cause serious health problems. Small particles pose the greatest risk because they penetrate deep in the lungs and may enter the bloodstream.
A significant portion of particulate matter is black carbon or soot, which is created by incomplete combustion of fossil fuels from gas and diesel engines and other sources that burn fossil fuels. In addition to its health impacts, black carbon is a major contributor to global climate change, possibly second only to CO2.
Not all of this pollution comes from coal fired power plants or diesel trucks. The major indoor combustion pollutants are carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), fine and ultrafine particles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and formaldehyde. At elevated levels, carbon monoxide causes headaches, fatigue, queasiness, and at very high levels, brain and heart damage and death. Other combustion pollutants can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, and serious lung disease, including cancer and other health impacts. Additionally, cooking emissions, especially from gas stoves, have been associated with increased respiratory disease. Young children, people with asthma, and people with heart or lung disease are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of combustion pollutants.
A study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on indoor air quality in Southern California homes found that a significant portion of residences exceed outdoor air quality standards for several pollutants on a weekly basis as a result of cooking with gas burners. “If these were conditions that were outdoors the Environmental Protection Agency would be cracking down. But since it’s in people’s homes, there’s no regulation requiring anyone to fix it,” the lead author said. “Reducing people’s exposure to pollutants from gas stoves should be a public health priority.”
The Answer: Clean Energy, Efficiency and Electrification of Buildings and Transportation
California has already shown that it can make dramatic improvements in air quality. From 1989 to 2008, regulations on diesel emissions helped reduced the concentration of black carbon in the state by 50 percent.
Senate Bill 1383, which was signed by Governor Brown in 2016, requires that by 2030 emissions from "super pollutants" including methane and hydrofluorocarbons be cut by 40 percent, while human-caused black carbon must be reduced to 50 percent below 2013 levels.
Much of the reduction in pollutants such as black carbon will continue to come from improvements in diesel trucks, as older trucks are replaced and engines are retrofitted. While gasoline-powered passenger cars account for fewer particulate emissions, their contribution remains significant. These emissions could be eliminated by switching to electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, indoor air quality can be improved by switching from natural gas to all electric appliances.
Electrifying homes and passenger transportation, and then generating that electricity from renewable sources, creates a virtuous cycle that can drastically reduce or eliminate multiple sources of both CO2 emissions and dangerous particulates from the human environment.
The good news is that if we do it right, California's recent policy moves put us on a path to solve for both global climate impacts and short and long-term public health issues.