The Public Health Impact of Energy Policy

  • Date: Jan 01 1978
  • Policy Number: 7845(PP)

Key Words: Energy, Environmental Health

I. Statement of the Problem

The country is in the process of establishing a national energy policy. Since energy policy can have a great impact on society and health, public health professionals have a responsibility to ensure that policies directed at energy problem solutions are compatible with public health.

APHA has a long-standing concern with the potential health and environmental ramifications of an energy policy. The recommendations in this statement stem largely from the draft report of a year-long study conducted by an APHA Energy Task Force.

Development of new energy resources must be done deliberately with adequate advance planning or the hazard and reckless action to avoid energy shortages may become a real and present danger. Even today the potential threat to health is apparent when considering such occupational hazards as mining disasters and black lung disease and such environmental hazards as emissions from automobile exhausts and power plant stacks. Environmental catastrophes such as oil spills and strip mines further highlight the need for responsible planning.

II. Purpose
To encourage and support measures which will lead to minimum adverse effects on health in the utilization and development of existing and new energy resources.

III. Positions and Recommendations
The technology for producing energy from solar and fusion sources is still evolving while other sources, such as wind, hydraulic, and geothermal have been inefficiently employed for centuries.

In the interim, dependence on our diminishing supply of depletable resources demands that these be used as efficiently as possible. The resources now available msut be able to last until a long-term energy production plan can be developed. Reliable methods must therefore be implemented to assure that conservation is encouraged by promoting awareness of the potential benefits in increased availability of energy to people.

Strong efforts must be exerted to minimize the unavoidable health impact of energy production. The industrial sector, as well as the government, must continue to develop and employ safety procedures wherever health hazards are identified in the entire energy production cycle of each type of energy source. This should extend from the obtaining of the source material through its processing, utilization, and ultimate disposal.

Research into potential hazards of new technologies and development of suitable control mechanisms should be conducted in parallel with technology development. A continuing effort must be made to upgrade existing energy technologies to decrease their health risks. There is no reason to believe that risk levels now existing are inherently acceptable or necessary. New constraints on energy may require re-evaluation of the acceptability of these risks. An absolutely "acceptable" level of health risk does not exist.

The potential risks of energy strategies should be carefully examined to determine whether decreasing one hazard may contain hidden health effects elsewhere-in direct ways and possibly to different populations.
Specific recommendations are:

Conservation
APHA strongly endorses energy conservation and believes that insufficient attention has been given to conservation and to policies aimed at reducing growth in a non-disruptive manner. Careful consideration must be given, however, to potential health impacts and equity considerations.Voluntary methods of energy conservation may be only partially successful. Uniform and enforceable conservation methods must be developed.

Some other positive recommendations concerning conservation are:
a. the labeling of energy consumption ratings should be extended to all energy consuming products,
b. the development of new industrial facilities should take into consideration their energy consumption and the availability of energy resources,
c. the development of housing standards that minimize energy consumption,
d. recycling of materials should be encouraged.

Coal Fuel Cycle
The U.S. has large reserves of coal and current expectations are for greatly increased use of this fuel. Currently mining and combustion of coal involve the largest occupational and public health cost of any fuel cycle. If implemented, available health and safety technologies should significantly reduce the occupational health costs of mining. APHA recommends that coal mine health and safety laws should be vigorously enforced. The available health and safety technologies include improved ventilation, illumination, reduction of noise levels, mechanical roofbolters, dust control technology and gas monitoring.

The expansion of efforts to extract methane from underground coal fields should be encouraged. Tapping this resource contributes to energy supply and improved safety in the mines.

A health protecting U.S. energy policy should put a premium on mitigating the health effects of coal combustion. Emission performance standards for new power plants should be strengthened and existing plants should be upgraded or phased out. A major research effort on health effects and pollution prevention strategies, with special attention to small respirable particles including sulfates, nitrates and trace metals should be instituted. To ensure that sufficient options are expeditiously available for pollution control, research on several different control strategies should be pursued.

Control of carcinogens in the coal fuel cycle should be approached in the same way radioactive emissions are treated in the nuclear cycle.

Nuclear Fuel Cycle
Nuclear power now provides about 10 per cent of the nation's electricity. The immediate health costs of nuclear power appear to be as low or lower than those of any other near-term fuel cycle. Nevertheless, it is beset with a number of doubts about long-term safety and its apparent unresolved problems. APHA makes the following recommendations:

Occupational health and safety laws for uranium mining should be vigorously enforced and currently available safety technology used in all mines.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission should establish guidelines to ensure occupational radioactive exposure is kept "as low as reasonably achievable" below current limits, throughout, the fuel cycle.

There is a need for further examination of the relative health consequences of the recylce and throw-away fuel cycles.
There must be further evaluation of the health and safety aspects of the breeder.

To ensure that public health and safety is a predominant concern, fuel reprocessing and waste disposal activities should either be operated by or very closely supervised by the federal government.

Synthetic Fuels
Development of synthetic fuels from coal and oil shale should be done, at acceptable levels of environmental and health impact. Air and water emissions and occupational exposures from synthetic fuel plants, particularly second generation plants, are largely undefined. It is anticipated that intermediate products will contain carcinogens, teratogens and other toxic agents. APHA recommends that potential environmental and occupational effects be given very serious consideration and that the development of synthetic fuels follow a multiple barrier philosophy comparable to that used in the nuclear field.

Petroleum and Natural Gas
Petroleum and natural gas are currently the major energy sources for the nation. More data on occupational diseases, with particular attention to cancer, and occupational exposures in the petroleum industry are needed.

The automobile is the major consumer of petroleum and the major sources of health impact from the petroleum fuel cycle.
A concentrated effort must be made to reduce dependency on the automobile. This must be coupled with increased availability of mass transportation. Such decreased dependency will lead to reductions in energy use, improvement in air quality, and a reduction in accidential injury and death.

The substitution of synthetic fuels for automobiles demands careful examination for potential health impacts.
Liquified natural gas (LNG) carries the potential of catastrophic accidents. LNG systems, therefore, should be subject to the same rigorous safety analysis currently applied to the nuclear fuel cycle.

Renewable and Unconventional Energy Sources
Solar energy is a most attractive long-term energy source.
Although many unconventional sources seem to have lower health impacts than conventional energy sources, investigations of health and ecological effects must parallel their development.

Risk Analysis
To arrive at sound judgment about the risks of energy technologies, people need to be better informed about the kind and extent of health hazards to which they are exposed, both from natural sources and from technological activities. Sound, rational, uniform criteria will need to be developed to provide a basis for judgment in selecting optimum methods of energy production.

One very important criterion is the present public health impact of the particular energy source utilization. Extensive efforts must be exerted to develop some approximation of the expected morbidity and mortality rates that can result from the use of each potential energy source.

Various means of energy production must be compared in light of the potential risks to occupational and environmental health. It is expected that the above criteria will be dynamic, changing with state of the art, rate of use, and siting considerations.
IV. Desired Action by APHA and Methods
a. Circulate position to members, government officials, and the public.
b. Provide expert testimony as appropriate.
c. Instruct housing and health committees to investigate energy interactions as above.
d. Establish a continuing energy advisory group within APHA with representation from appropriate sections to be available to assist APHA staff as issues arise.

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