Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

What’s the alternative? Fossil fuel health hazard highlight

By Guest contributors on October 11, 2008

This post was submitted by guest contributor James O'Shea,  from the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center.

Designers today find themselves juggling the pros and cons of traditional energy and the value of more sustainable sources. Automobile and home designers are forced to choose between perhaps more expensive, yet more sustainable structures, and cheaper but less efficient structures. We know now the value of alternative energies from a planetary perspective, but did you know that a reliance on fossil fuels is actually endangering our health?

There are essentially two tiers to the hazards posed by our continued burning of fossil fuels. The first are the direct hazards posed by polluting behaviors. For instance, cities and areas that are known to have high smog indices have among the highest asthma rates in the world. On an atmospheric level, in Australia and South Africa the ozone is more depleted than anywhere else in the world. It is no coincidence, then, that these countries have the world’s highest rates of skin cancer due to intensified ultraviolet rays breaking through the ozone layer.

Then there are the more indirect health costs of these practices. The processing of fossil fuels itself is among the most hazardous jobs for industrial workers. Asbestos and benzene pervade these industries, leading to asbestos cancer, mesothelioma and benzene-related malignancies. Workers in these industries are often unaware of the materials they are handling or breathing and fail to wear proper protective equipment.

A recent U.K. study showed that oil refinery workers have among the highest rates of pleural cancer (mesothelioma)  of any occupation. The only known cause for mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used in this industry in the lining of piping and boilers, as well as in other insulated fixtures. Even though asbestos was banned in the late 1970’s in the United States, older fixtures still contain high levels of hazardous asbestos fibers.

Benzene is also a hazard in this industry, particularly in the processing of gasoline fuel. Benzene is a known carcinogen and is strictly monitored by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In addition to cancers connected with benzene, including breast and lung malignancies, benzene exposure has been associated with human gene mutation and reproductive complications.

So there are consequences on a number of levels. There are well-known planetary health ramifications, but there are also varying levels of hazards to human health that have not been as thoroughly documented. There are a number of factors to consider when choosing between efficiency and more traditional energies and product designers, lawmakers, and homeowners need to consider that the effects go beyond what we may have initially believed.

For more information on this topic, visit the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center, the web's leading resource for relevant and up to date information regarding asbestos and its associated health complications.