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Trevor Hancock: Assess health impact of our energy systems

The use of vast amounts of energy is one of the defining characteristics of the industrial age. Just how much energy we use was vividly captured by R.J. Gonzalez in a book on energy and the environment in 1976.

The use of vast amounts of energy is one of the defining characteristics of the industrial age.

Just how much energy we use was vividly captured by R.J. Gonzalez in a book on energy and the environment in 1976. He described energy utilization in the U.S. as “the equivalent of having 400 mechanical servants working for us five days a week, 50 weeks a year. It’s a total of roughly 100,000 servant-equivalent days per year per person in the United States. This is why we are productive. This is why we can have the kind of standard of living we enjoy.”

But our use of energy comes at a large and mainly unacknowledged health and economic cost. In a chapter on energy and health in the 2012 book Global Energy Assessment, the authors found that energy systems were directly accountable for five per cent of all deaths globally in 2000, and indirectly caused another five per cent of deaths.

Indeed, overall, they found that energy systems pose a health risk comparable in scale to tobacco, alcohol and high blood pressure.

Almost three per cent of deaths worldwide result from indoor air pollution arising from the use of solid fuels indoors for cooking and heating, mainly in low-income countries. For those populations, the provision of clean energy for heating and cooking is paramount.

Another 1.4 per cent of deaths are due to outdoor air pollution, and Canada is not immune. The Canadian Medical Association estimated that 21,000 people in Canada would die in 2008 due to outdoor air pollution, with 11,000 hospital admissions, more than 92,000 emergency department visits and 620,000 doctor’s office visits; economic costs would top $8 billion.

A further 1.4 per cent of deaths worldwide are attributed to motor-vehicle crashes, which are considered an indirect cause, as is the physical inactivity resulting from our car-dependent society, which causes a further 3.4 per cent of deaths. Both these causes of energy-related deaths are significant in Canada and other high-income countries.

Other important impacts include deaths, disease and injuries among energy workers (especially in coal mining) and the growing health impacts of climate change.

It is important to understand that all energy systems have an impact on health and the environment. That impact starts with exploration for energy reserves and continues through the extraction, transportation, processing, distribution and use of energy; it also includes the decommissioning of power plants and the disposal of wastes.

Those affected include energy-industry workers, energy users and the wider regional and global population. The impacts can range from the very local — the impact of windmill noise on a local community — to the global, such as the climate change caused by fossil-fuel combustion. Moreover, those impacts could last for generations; a hundred years or so for carbon dioxide emissions, thousands of years for nuclear waste.

The largest health impacts result from use of coal, which is a major contributor to occupational-health problems, indoor and outdoor air pollution, and climate change. Hence the imperative to stop the production and use of coal. Indeed, just this month, a coalition of 15 Canadian health organizations has called for the closure of all of Canada’s coal-fired power plants by 2025. But other fossil fuels also contribute to climate change and have health impacts, and so we also need to move away from their use.

While most people assume that solar, wind and renewable energy, along with conservation, are benign, they, too, have health impacts — although usually far less than those due to the use of fossil fuels.

And while constructing and operating nuclear power has quite low health risks, there are still unresolved problems with the long-term storage of waste, and when things do go wrong, the problems are vast and long-lived.

But right now, what is missing from the discussion of energy policy is any assessment of the overall health impacts of the various energy-supply options we face. It is time for a full assessment of the health impact in B.C., in Canada and globally of our energy-system options.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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