Energy-use policy must balance benefits, risks of sources

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Climate change has been a topic of discussion at the highest levels of world governments for years. Julia Gohlke, Ph.D., assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences, was  involved in those discussions during her fellowship with the U.S. Department of State in 2009-10.

julia_gohlke_webGohlke was one of several scientists advising professional negotiators in the climate change office. She was immersed in the topic, and there was one consistent oversight in the discussions that perplexed her.

“Health was not a primary concern,” Gohlke says. “It should be. The primary reason we developed electricity is it’s useful and it improves our lives. If we’re going to change our energy infrastructure, we need to evaluate the health benefits and risks associated with it.”

Gohlke, who joined UAB in August 2010, recently published findings on the relationship between coal consumption, electricity use and health in the Feb. 21 edition of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The findings show that electricity use has health benefits in diverse populations worldwide, but the relationship is not linear and increasing use past a certain threshold may not add benefits. Additionally, those benefits may be offset by negative health effects of the fuel used to generate electricity.

Environmental hazards, including reduced access to clean water, tend to be mitigated by access to a reliable electricity source, according to her findings. Access to electricity also reduces in-home burning of inefficient and polluting fuels such as coal, wood and animal dung. However, depending on the way electricity is generated, new health hazards may be introduced, including exposure to particulate matter, sulfur oxides, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, mercury and ozone emitted during power generation.

In 2008, Gohlke interned at the World Health Organization office that develops the Environmental Burden of Disease reports that estimate the attributable fraction of diseases to environmental causes, including clean water, and air pollution.

“What interested me is that many of those environmental causes can be attributed to electricity use,” Gohlke says. “For instance, electricity creates a mechanism to get clean water. Once you have electricity, you more than likely have reliable access to clean water. But it also creates health detriments if you’re using a polluting source of fuel — for instance, coal-fired power plants release several pollutants that cause both short- and long-term health effects.”

Gohlke says an effort has to be made to weigh the benefits and risk to assess the implications for climate and energy policy.

“We know electricity is good for our health,” she says. “We need clean water for our health. But at what point does increased consumption of electricity no longer increase the health of a population? That is what initiated the study.”

Gohlke studied 41 countries from 1965 to 2005 to determine if electricity and coal consumption contributed to the relationship between infant mortality or life expectancy. The model suggested that electricity use was associated with improved infant mortality rates, but only in countries where rates were relatively high in 1965.

“Change in life expectancy did not appear to be associated with electricity use,” Gohlke says, “but increased coal consumption was associated with reduced life expectancy and increased infant mortality. Essentially, those countries that use coal as their main source of electricity have a reduced rate of decrease in infant mortality and increase in life expectancy.”

So what are the answers? Several life-cycle studies have suggested alternative energies that are more health-promoting, like solar and wind. But Gohlke acknowledges harnessing those resources would require the development of new technologies and a fair amount of investment in technology and infrastructure.

“From a health standpoint, they’re great,” she says, “but you can’t ignore the economics of the evaluation.”

In the meantime, Gohlke says identifying the health risks and benefits inherent to meeting the demand for energy will be critical to international policy development, particularly given current and possibly increasing reliance on coal for electricity, especially in middle-income countries such as China and India. The way those countries interpret their electricity needs will likely be different from industrialized nations.

“Tearing apart the complex relationships between energy consumption and health will help us to identify those policies that may be particularly health-promoting as we negotiate energy and climate policy,” Gohlke says. “This study is a starting point, but more are needed to examine the social and economic drivers of the relationship between energy consumption and health.”