A User’s Guide To Oil, Coal, and Gas
There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.
History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present — and the extensive costs.
In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military, and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation, and human disease.
Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.
It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels — all of them — completely.
The ten ‘ingredients’ listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals — often not disclosed — many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal, and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.
This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a ‘starting point’ in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal, and natural gas.
Fossil Fuel Use: Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas
Benzene is a well-established carcinogen with specific links to leukemia as well as breast and urinary tract cancers. Exposure to benzene reduces red and white blood cell production in bone marrow; decreases auto-immune cell function (T-cell and B-cells); and has been linked to sperm-head abnormalities and generalized chromosome aberrations.
Benzene is one of the largest-volume petrochemical solvents used in the fossil fuel industry. It is a major component in all major fossil fuel production: oil, coal, and gas.
People are exposed to it from inhaling automobile exhaust and gasoline fumes, industrial burning such as oil and coal combustion, and exposure to fracking fluids.
Studies linking Benzene from fossil fuel combustion to cancer and other severe health problems are increasingly reported from around the world. In Atlanta, scientists from Emory University earlier this year reported a “significant increase” in non-hodgkins lymphomas in regions close to oil refineries and plants that release benzene. In Canada, scientists reported unusually high rates of leukemia and non-hodgkins Lymphoma among residents living “downwind” from the “Tar Sands” fields in Alberta — corresponding with high benzene levels found in the same locations. In Calcutta (India) researchers recently linked sudden “spikes” in certain cancers to a corresponding rise in Benzene emissions since 2007.
The Colorado School of Public Health last year published a report which warned that the benzene from fracking operations gives local residents higher long-term cancer risks. “Benzene is the major contributor to lifetime excess cancer risks” for people living near fracking wells, said Lisa McKenzie, Ph.D., MPH, lead author of the study. (See the full study here.)
The damage benzene inflicts on the human body, however, often takes many years to develop — but those effects are catastrophic. As the fossil fuel industry blankets the US and Canada with recently invented, highly profitable extraction methods such as fracking gas and tar sands oil production, long-term consequences have not been well considered. The story of Camp Lejune is worthy of study:
Over a period of thirty years from the 1950s to the 1980s, troops stationed at the US military base at Camp Lejune, North Carolina, unknowingly drank and bathed in highly contaminated water containing benzene (and a host of other toxic chemicals, originating from leaked fuel tanks and other commercial sources both on and off the base).
Starting in the 1970s, unusual forms of cancers associated with long-term exposure to benzene became rampant among the camp’s residents. Mary Freshwater was a military wife who lived on the base for many years. “I was very active with the Officers’ Wives Club. We were at a party at one of my friend’s house one night. There were five of us in different stages of pregnancy. Every one of us lost their baby to a birth defect,” she told ABC news in this 2012 report, part of which I’ll repost here:
On Nov. 30, 1977, Freshwater gave birth to a son, Russell Alexander Thorpe, but the baby was born with an open spine. He died one month later. At the time, few people were aware of the chemicals in the drinking water, nor the long-term health effects of those chemicals. Doctors suggested to Freshwater that she try to get pregnant again — and she did. Her second son, Charlie, was born without a cranium, and died the same day. Today, Freshwater is 68 years old and has been diagnosed with two different kinds of cancers, acute myeloid and acute lymphoma. She says doctors told her the diagnosis was consistent with exposure to chemicals such as benzene, which she was exposed to during her time at Camp Lejeune.
The full story of the contaminated water at Camp Lejune is told in the documentary, Semper Fi: Always Faithful.
The use of benzene, like other toxins used in oil and gas, is particularly insidious because the effects — as seen in the children of the military families at Camp Lejune — take many years to manifest. And due to lax regulations, these products have been rushed into use long before any long-term testing has been possible. “It takes about 20 years, let’s say, for solid tumors to develop after exposure to a chemical,” said Brian Schwartz, an environmental epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University.
The fossil fuel industry actively suppresses benzene disclosure and regulation. In April 2001, the Koch Petroluem Group (now Flint Hills Resources – still owned by the Koch brothers) “pleaded guilty to a felony charge of lying to the government about its benzene emissions.” The Koch brothers reported 1/149th of their actual benzene pollution to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The company was fined $10 million and ordered to fund an additional $10 million in costs for environmental cleanup in South Texas.
Fossil Fuel Sources: Oil, Coal, and Gas
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are two primary examples of particle-forming air pollutants (particulate matter) from coal power plants. Particulate matter is known to contribute to serious health problems, including lung cancer and other cardiopulmonary mortality. SO2 and NOx are both highly toxic to human health, and contribute directly to thousands of hospitalizations, heart attacks, and deaths annually.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health, for example, labels sulfur dioxide “extremely toxic.” At high concentrations, it can cause life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema); and it is linked to to respiratory ailments including chronic lung disease and asthma, as well as heart disease. It can be fatal upon inhalation at high exposure rates.
SO2 is particularly dangerous for children. Studies correlate SO2 emissions from petroleum refineries — even in lower exposure levels over time — to higher rates of childhood asthma in children who live or attend school in proximity to those refineries. Similarly, small particles of NOx can penetrate deeply into sensitive lung tissue and damage it, causing premature death in extreme cases. Inhalation of such particles is associated with emphysema and bronchitis.
The largest sources of combined global SO2 and NOx emissions are from fossil fuel combustion at power plants and other industrial facilities.
The American Journal of Public Health published reports in 2009 that high levels of sulfur dioxide, associated with oil refining, was found indoors in residential homes in Richmond, California — a community which straddles four major oil refineries, including the massive Chevron oil refinery. The refinery processes up to 240,000 barrels of crude oil per day. In 2010 alone, it released some 575,669 pounds of chemicals, including SO2, into air, water, and waste facilities. It may be no surprise, then, that residents of Richmond suffer statistically significant higher risks of dying from heart disease and strokes and are more likely to go to hospitals for asthma than any other nearby county residents.
Conversely, one study in France reported a significant reduction in hospital visits related to SO2 exposure during the period of a national oil-refinery strike in France — when oil production ceased temporarily, and SO2 emissions dropped.
SO2 and NOx emissions represent a known and significant health risk from routine oil, gas, and coal production — yet these emissions from oil and gas accidents pose additional — and unforeseen — risks. Worse, many oil- and gas-related accidents are not reported to the public at all — such as the 300 oil pipeline spills in North Dakota, which, since 2010, have never been reported. Accidents, whether reported or not, are a significant contributor to SO2 contamination and represent a serious public health risk. More than 42,000 tons of SO2 were released from oil and gas accidents — in Texas alone — between 2009 and 2011.
This raises the question: just how much SO2 and NOx is emitted from fossil fuel sources, and exposed to the public, without anyone ever knowing about it?
Fossil Fuel Source: Oil
Pet coke is a rapidly expanding byproduct of the massive bitumen processing (tar sands oil) and refining currently underway in Alberta, Canada. Pet coke heavy dust resembles coal. It contains dozens of dangerous chemicals and heavy metals, including chromium, vanadium, sulfur, and selenium. Reflective of the general apathy in government and the fossil fuel industry about public study, and awareness, of potentially dangerous chemicals used in their drilling, there appears to be little published about the health risks of this growing tar sands waste product. Chris Weisener, a researcher at the University of Windsor, explained: “there is not much information about pet coke available, so its effects are not conclusively known.”
Is it, therefore, dangerous to breathe? to drink? to enter our soil and rivers?
“From the air perspective, as long as it’s not being burned, the only concern would be fugitive dust,” said Chris Ethridge of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. (As if “fugitive dust,” floating freely in the air, laced with petro-toxins, would be harmless.)
Mr. Ethridge’s comments reflect those of the industry, which would rather not discuss in much detail the actual end-use: Pet Coke is burned. Due to the rapid expansion of tar sands mining in Alberta, Pet Coke is now being exported in record quantities to Asia, where it is burned, instead of coal, in power plants.
From January 2011 to September 2012, the United States exported over 8.6 million tons of pet coke to China. The largest pet coke trader in the world is Oxbow Corporation, owned by William Koch — brother of known fossil fuel industrialists David and Charles Koch.
The problem? Pet coke is an egregious contributor to global climate change. When burned, it emits even 5 to 10 percent more CO2 than coal.
These climate implications are hidden from the public. The industry classifies it as a “refinery byproduct,” which allows it to be excluded from most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands oil production. Many people, like Mr. Ethridge, have not focused on its end-use.
Meanwhile, the waste stream from tar sands oil development in Alberta has increased exponentially since large-scale development began in the early 2000s, and it is no longer confined to the remote Canadian hinterland.
Concern is rising in both cities: many residents are now reporting diverse health complaints.
Large public protests have occurred in both cities (video here) and, this week, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel cautioned all city residents to call the police (311) if they “see any pet coke blowing off the piles.” The Chicago health department is now considering new pet coke regulations (none currently exist) and there are growing calls to ban it outright from city limits. Several lawsuits have been filed, including one against the Koch brothers (the largest exporters of pet coke in the US), who are accused of illegal pet coke storage.
Nevertheless, corporations are investing heavily in expanding tar sands oil development. One refinery alone — BP’s Whiting refinery in Indiana — is now undergoing a $4 billion expansion specifically to accommodate increased tar sands production in Alberta. The implications for pet coke are dramatic: the Whiting plant alone will now produce about 2 million tons of pet coke annually — a 100% increase from previous year’s pet coke production at that plant. Thus, with little media attention, pet coke is becoming a “profitable” fossil fuel product in its own right.
It even has its own industry support group — indeed, the 13th annual “Petcoke Conference” is being held in San Diego in February 2014, hosted by “The Jacobs Group” — one of the leading “pet coke service industries.”
While ignoring the carbon-saturated climate implications, The Jacobs Group promotes pet coke on it’s website (screenshot below) as an exciting, new fossil fuel source in a time of transition. “Amid accelerating change, standing still is not an option.”
Fossil Fuel Source: Natural Gas
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen with known links to leukemia and rare nasopharyngeall cancers, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Formaldehyde is highly toxic regardless of method of intake. It is a potent allergen and genotoxin. Studies have linked spontaneous abortions, congenital malformations, low birth weights, infertility, and endometriosis to formaldehyde exposure. Epidemiological studies link exposure to formaldehyde to DNA alteration. It is also contributes to ground-level ozone.
Formaldehyde is commonly used in “fracking” — although, the industry does not report the details of its use.
In 2006, the fracking industry was granted waivers from federal clean air and water regulations (known as “The Halliburton Loophole”) — since then, it has operated with few, if any, reporting requirements regarding the chemicals it uses. (The waiver was promoted by the Bush-Cheney White House; Cheney, of course, was the former CEO of Halliburton).
Independent studies, however, have detected dangerous levels of formaldehyde in both wastewater and ambient air emissions from fracking operations. One researcher, with the Houston Advanced Research Center, said reading from one test site in north Texas, “astoundingly high,” and, “I’ve never heard of ambient (formaldehyde) concentrations that high… except in Brazil.”
The designation of formaldehyde as a dangerous ingredient in fossil fuel production has been vigorously contested by both the fossil fuel industry and by the members of the US Congress who receive huge funds from the industry.
In 2009, Koch Industries, one of the nation’s largest fossil fuel companies, lobbied against the EPA’s proposed declaration that formaldehyde “should be treated as [a] known human carcinogen.” The largest recipients of oil and gas industry contributions in the US Congress, including Senators James Inhofe and David Vitter, also lobbied extensively against the designation.
Vitter, indeed, accepts money directly from the formaldehyde industry. According to Talking Points Memo, his election campaign received about $20,500 in 2009 from companies that produce large amounts of formaldehyde waste in Louisiana. His preferences for the people of Louisiana are clear, and they aren’t the avoidance of cancer.
Fossil Fuel Sources: Oil and Coal
In actuality, this is not a single listing — polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) is an entire class of toxic chemicals, linked together by their unique chemical structure and reactive properties. I include them on this list because they are frequently cited collectively as a primary fossil fuel pollutant.
Many PAHs are known human carcinogens and genetic mutagens. In addition, there are particular prenatal health risks: prenatal exposure to PAHs is linked to childhood asthma, low birth weight, adverse birth outcomes including heart malformations, and DNA damage. Additionally, recent studies link exposure to childhood behavior disorders; researchers from Columbia University, in a 2012 Columbia University study, found a strong link between prenatal PAH exposure and early childhood depression. Infants found to have elevated PAH levels in their umbilical cord blood were 46% more likely to eventually score highly on the anxiety/depression scale than those with low PAH levels in cord blood. The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
The rapid development of the Alberta “tar sands” oil fields in Alberta, Canada, has coincided with both the discovery of dangerous levels of PAHs in the region and multiple reports of significantly higher rates of cancer and other diseases in the adjacent communities. As reported in one local newspaper:
More women in the community are contracting lupus. Infant asthma rates have also increased. During the summer months, it is not uncommon to find mysterious lesions and sores after swimming in Lake Athabasca. “When you look at what is happening in the area, it can’t not be related to development,” says Eriel Deranger, a spokesperson for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “Too many times, we see things in the animals and health that the elders have never seen before.”
The BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 provides another window into the previously hidden dangers of PAHs in oil production. Following the massive spill, scientists found PAH levels to be 40 times higher than before the spill.
Local fisherman, normally accustomed to some of the most abundant and healthy fisheries in the US, subsequently reported finding horribly mutated shrimp with tumors on their heads, some lacking eyes and eye sockets, clawless crabs “with shells that look like they’ve been burned off by chemicals.” An increasing number of scientists from diverse specialties – biologists, fish physiologists, environmental toxologists — from Louisiana State University, North Carolina University, North Texas University, and others cite PAHs from the spill as the most likely culprit.
The effects of PAHs to wildlife in the Gulf waters — coming to light several years after the spill — may merit attention across the American heartland as US domestic oil production increases dramatically.
Will North Dakotans, for example, soon begin to see a sharp rise in rare cancers, due to the hundreds of unreported PAH-infused oil pipeline spills in that state since 2012, like their unfortunate northern neighbors in Alberta are now experiencing near the tar sands fields?
Is this what we mean by “energy independence?”
Fossil Fuel Source: Coal
Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin. It damages the brain and the nervous system either through inhalation, ingestion, or contact with the skin. It is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and children. It is known to disrupt the development of the in-vitro brain. In low doses, mercury may affect a child’s development, delaying walking and talking, shortening attention span, and causing learning disabilities. High dose prenatal and infant exposures to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness. In adults, mercury poisoning can adversely affect fertility and blood pressure regulation and can cause memory loss, tremors, vision loss, and numbness of the fingers and toes.
Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of airborne mercury emissions in the United States. The mercury emitted from such plants can travel thousands of miles; scientists recently linked the chemical fingerprint of mercury found in fish in deep portions of the Pacific Ocean to coal power plants thousands of miles away in Asia.
Here in the US, many of the largest coal-powered power plants are located within 50-100 miles of some of the largest metropolitan areas in the country, including Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Austin.
One out of every six women of childbearing age in the US have blood mercury levels that could be harmful to a fetus, according to EPA reports. The EPA estimates that 300,000 children are born each year at risk for significant development disorders due to mercury exposure.
You may not hear references to mercury in the television ads speaking about “clean coal.” But it’s in there, too.