Published on Friday, August 17, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times
Fossil Fuel Cuts Would Reduce Early Deaths, Illness, Study Says
Research claims that slowing gas and oil burning in four major cities may do more than halt global warming
by Aparna Surendran
Reducing air pollution in just four of the world's largest cities--New
York; Mexico City; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Santiago, Chile--could prevent
64,000 premature deaths and 37 million lost workdays over the next
two decades, according to research that examines the health effects
of the use of fossil fuels.
The review is published in the current issue of Science. Worldwide use of fossil fuels has been a major topic of debate in recent years because of long-term concerns about global warming. Many scientists believe that an increased amount of carbon dioxide--produced whenever coal, oil or natural gas is burned--is the chief factor in the "greenhouse effect" warming of the Earth's climate. If so, reducing use of such fuels is vital, experts on global warming argue.
Also, "the benefits of lowering emissions are immediate" because many of the gases emitted when fuels are burned are also pollutants, said George Thurston, one of the review's authors and an associate professor of environmental medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.
"Universal studies have shown when air pollution levels go up, you get an increase in the numbers of deaths and hospital admissions, missed days at work and school, and other adverse effects," Thurston said.
Much of the discussion on climate is about what will happen 50years from now, said Devra Davis, the review's lead author and a visiting professor in public policy at Carnegie Mellon University's H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management.
"This review talks about what is going to happen tomorrow," she said.
In addition to the study about pollution in the four cities, another study examined in the review suggested that reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants in the United States would save as many as 18,700 lives by reducing deaths from bronchial problems, heart disease and other ailments.
A third study indicated that air pollution from traffic causes more deaths than do traffic accidents.
A fourth study reported that alternative transportation policies initiated during the busy 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta not only reduced vehicle exhaust and air pollutants such as ozone by about 30%, they also decreased the number of acute asthma attacks by 40% and pediatric emergency admissions by about 19%.
Some policy experts disagreed with the review's suggestions.
The idea of reducing the use of fossil fuels to improve health is "twisted science," said Myron Ebell, director of global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Decreasing the use of cheap fossil fuels would result in higher energy prices and lower public access to energy, he said. That, in turn, could have a "huge impact on human health," particularly in poor countries, Ebell said.
Others, however, praised the work.
"I think this is a very important paper that makes a very significant contribution to understanding damage of greenhouse gas emission on our future," said Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times