Numerous activist-driven “studies” have suggested fracking poses a threat to the health of children, despite having no evidence to support those claims. EID recently debunked the latest attempts here and here.
So it’s notable that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has just released a report highlighting the real threat to children worldwide — air pollution — and its data actually provides evidence that fracking has helped save children’s lives.
The report finds that in 2012 an estimated 600,000 children worldwide, mostly in developing countries, have died before the age of 5 from illnesses stemming from bad air related to both indoor and outdoor sources. The report notes this pollution has contributed to increased rates of asthma, low birth weight, cancer, birth defects and premature death — basically all the things fracking opponents have tried (and failed) to link to shale development.
Yet the country with the least air pollution-related deaths is the United States – the number one oil and gas producer in the world. Of course, that’s because natural gas use has drastically reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and pollution since the shale revolution began.
As the graphic from the report below shows, the “Americas” region that includes the U.S. has by far the lowest rate of deaths linked to air pollution, and would no doubt be even lower if the U.S. weren’t grouped in with developing countries in Central and South America.
Also, the three most dangerous criteria pollutants cited in the study — fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide — are all in rapid decline in the U.S. thanks to increased natural gas use for electrical generation. Here is a quick look about what the report says about each.
Fine Particulate Matter (PM 2.5)
UNICEF says “… Not only can PM 2.5 penetrate deep inside the lungs, but it can also enter the bloodstream, causing a variety of health problems including heart disease and other cardiovascular complications.”
According to the latest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Greenhouse Gas Inventory, PM 2.5 declined 60 percent in the U.S. from 2005 to 2013. As the following graphic from the report shows, it is much the opposite story in the rest of the world, as PM 2.5 pollution is a huge problem in Asia and Africa.
The EPA’s 2009 “Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter,” similarly found particulate matter can cause early death, cardiovascular or respiratory harm, and UNICEF further notes that PM 2.5 not only can prove deadly, but can impede cognitive development in children,
“New research is demonstrating that air pollution might also affect cognitive development. Inhaled ultrafine particles, such as PM2.5, are so small that they can enter the bloodstream, and recent medical research indicates that this can cause the degeneration of blood-brain barriers, leading to oxidative stress, neuroinflammation and damage of neural tissue.”
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2)
UNICEF notes “SO2 can affect the respiratory system, causing coughing, mucus secretion, aggravation of asthma and chronic bronchitis. Studies have shown that exposure increases mortality rates, especially among those with cardiac and lung diseases.”
EPA has said SO2 is “of the greatest concern” for health, saying sulfur dioxides (SOx, SO2 and SO3) can “penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory disease, such as emphysema and bronchitis, and can aggravate existing heart disease, leading to increased hospital admissions and premature death.”
Natural gas emits virtually no sulfur dioxide, and thanks to increased use of the fuel, U.S. SO2 emissions have declined 78 percent since 1990 and 68 percent since 2005.
Nitrous Oxide (NOx)
UNICEF notes that NOx “… plays a significant role in the exacerbation of pneumonia, asthma, bronchial symptoms, lung inflammation and reduction in overall lung function.” EPA notes that acid rain is “caused by a chemical reaction that begins when compounds like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released into the air.”
Natural gas happens to emit one-third the nitrogen oxide as coal, so it’s no wonder NOx emissions have declined 38 percent since 2005 and 52 percent since 1990. The report notes that NOx combines with volatiles organic compounds to form ground-level ozone. Publicly available information demonstrates oil and gas production is not the significant contributor to ozone levels, as oil and gas activities account for just six percent of total NOx emissions according to the latest EPA Greenhouse Gas Inventory and emissions, and NOx and VOC emissions continue to decline thanks to increased natural gas use.
These statistics are simply undeniable, which is why EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has said, “Natural gas has been a game changer with our ability to really move forward with pollution reductions that have been very hard to get our arms around for many decades.”
And fortunately, U.S. air pollution could be positioned to decrease even more in the coming years.
For the first time ever, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects natural gas to be the No. 1 fuel source for electrical generation for 2016, projecting it will make up 34 percent of the total fuel mix. The latter noted, the potential for natural gas’ share of the fuel mix to grow even further seems likely, considering its abundant supply and subsequent low costs going forward. The health benefits of this continued trend could be remarkable. A recent Carnegie Mellon study found that a complete switch from coal to natural gas would result in a further SO2 reductions of 90 percent and 60 percent for NOx, reducing national annual health damages by $20-$50 billion annually.
Often taken for granted is the fact that abundant supplies of natural gas also reduce indoor air pollution, which the UNICEF report notes is even deadlier than outdoor pollution.
While millions of Americans are relying on cheap, clean-burning natural gas to heat their homes, WHO recently estimated 2.6 billion people — roughly 38 percent of the world’s population — still use wood and animal waste to heat their homes and cook, which leads to 4 million deaths a year. For example, the UNICEF report noted that more than three-fifths of India’s population still relies on solid fuels, contributing to about 100,000 child deaths in 2012. UNICEF also notes in a Zimbabwea case study that households that burn solid fuels rather than natural gas for cooking are far more likely to have children with health problems,
“… households using wood, dung or straw for cooking were more than twice as likely to have suffered from ALRI than children from households using Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), natural gas or electricity.”
All told, the UNICEF report finds that two billion people breathe air exceeding WHO standards, including 300 million that breathe air six times greater than WHO standards. These trends are particularly troublesome for children because their lungs are still developing and they breathe at about twice the rate of grown-ups,
“Recent estimates indicate that urban outdoor air pollution has risen by 8 per cent globally between 2008 and 2013. Urbanization, which is often associated with rising air pollution, is increasing too – by 2050, up to two thirds of the global population is expected to live in urban areas. Unless action is taken to control outdoor air pollution, studies show that outdoor air pollution will become the leading cause of environment-related child death by 2050.”
Despite this data — and a shining example in the U.S. of how to remedy the problem — the report includes absolutely no language endorsing natural gas as a solution. Instead, it solely advocates for 100 percent conversion to renewables due to climate change concerns, only vaguely referring to natural gas use by stating air quality in North America “has improved slightly over the past decade with new environmental regulations and progress in technology,”
“Cutting back on fossil fuel combustion and investing in renewable energy sources can help reduce both air pollution and greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. The multiplier effect of reducing fossil fuel combustion on the well-being of children stands to be enormous.”
But a recent Carnegie Mellon study found that an increased conversion to natural gas would significantly reduce global temperatures, considering methane emissions are well below the threshold for natural gas to maintain its climate benefits. Study after study has shown that fugitive methane emission from natural gas production are around 1.2 to 1.6 percent, which is well below the 2.7 percent threshold for natural gas to have significant climate benefits, which is why the Carnegie Mellon study states,
“Assuming 3% fugitive CH4 emissions, switching (to 100 percent NG for power generation) would reduce the power sector’s contribution to warming by 20% in 2040.”
The evidence is so overwhelming that even Hillary Clinton’s campaign has endorsed natural gas use by stating,
“… This shift has also yielded significant public health benefits, avoiding thousands of premature deaths and more than 100,000 asthma attacks in 2015 alone. With the right safeguards in place, natural gas can help meet our 2025 international climate commitment, in a way that keeps us on track with achieving a greater than 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”
Anti-fracking activists continue to release reports suggesting fracking threatens children by causing low birth weight, cancer, premature death, asthma and birth defects. Each of these studies lacks one key ingredient: proof.
As the UNICEF report makes crystal clear, air pollution can and does cause all of these issues, making it a real threat to children. That’s why increased natural gas use made possible by fracking is a real solution.