ERIC WOLFERT, ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT DIRECTOR
The debate over health care policy has been omnipresent in recent years, particularly since the rollout of the healthcare.gov online marketplace in October 2013 (CBS’ Evening News covered the issue 50 times in two months). However, such coverage, and in turn an overwhelming majority of the healthcare policy debate, is often missing one crucial factor: the role that American energy policy, particularly the country’s overreliance on fossil fuels, plays in giving the United States the most expensive and inefficient health care system among OECD nations. Without properly accounting and correcting for the many health care issues that carbon-intensive energy brings, our health care problems will persist.
The numbers are sobering. According to a peer-reviewed study published in Environment International in February 2013, total health care costs in the United States from fossil fuel usage annually total $886.5 billion dollars. If that number sounds astronomical, that’s because it is--it’s equivalent to a full 6% of the United States’ GDP. This is startling in the context of American healthcare spending, which in 2012 totaled 17.9% of US GDP. The fiscal effects, of course, only tell one side of the story. More important and tragic are the lives lost from such pollution, which by one estimate total 130,000 annually. Much has been written about how the United States, which relies significantly more on private as opposed to government health insurance than do peer nations, spends an enormous percentage of its GDP on health care compared to those nations. While the lack of a single-payer system in America certainly contributes to that fact significantly, the numbers foretell a clear need to transition away from fossil fuels if the United States is to significantly improve health care outcomes.
The most common ailment from air pollution, asthma, now affects nearly 1 in 10 children in the United States, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility. According to the organization:
“This [the fact that children are particularly susceptible to asthma] may be due to their distinct breathing patterns, as well as how much time they spend outside. It may also be due to the immaturity of their enzyme and immune systems, which assist in detoxifying pollutants, combined with incomplete pulmonary development. These factors appear to act in concert to make children highly susceptible to airborne pollutants such as those emitted by coal-fired power plants.”
Asthma’s ubiquity often overshadows how truly dangerous it is. According to a 2004 study of childhood asthma published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, the year 1996 saw 211 children die from asthma, and their medical bills total over $2 billion. Even though most children managed to escape asthma’s fatal effects, the disease still accounted for 6.3 million missed school days. One does not need to be an education expert to know that each day missed hurts a child’s life chances.
Fortunately, however, a solution already exists in renewable energy, particularly solar power. Pollution-free source of energy such as solar have often been discussed through the lens or preventing climate change, and given the urgency of the issue that is certainly warranted. However, solar energy has public health implications that go beyond climate change. As mentioned above, it lacks harmful emissions of carbon dioxide and other chemicals that have proven severely detrimental to human health. Unlike oil, coal, and gas, it requires almost no water to operate, virtually eliminating the threat of drinking water pollution posed so frequently by more traditional forms of energy. With solar costs consistently dropping even before the severe health care costs that arise from fossil fuels are factored in, switching to solar energy makes more sense by the day.
The deleterious health effects that arise from an energy system dependent upon fossil fuels are well documented and sobering. It is long past time for public policy and funding to favor energy sources that do not cause such harmful effects more fully and consistently.
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