Lives in the balance

March 31, 2004|By Cindy Parker

IT MAY COME as a surprise, but one of the biggest factors affecting our society's overall health is the way we use energy. America's overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels - oil, coal, natural gas - spawns air pollution that kills many more citizens each year (70,000) than terrorism and traffic fatalities combined. It kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer put together.

Thankfully, the Maryland House of Delegates, siding with 14 other states across the nation, passed a clean energy bill Monday that will help our kids breathe easier in the future. Now the state Senate, with time running out in the General Assembly, must follow suit with its own swift endorsement of clean air and good health through clean energy.

The legislation, sponsored by House Speaker Michael E. Busch, requires Maryland utilities to obtain 7.5 percent of their electricity from clean sources such as solar and wind power by 2014. This is an important first step because more than half of Maryland's electricity now comes from burning coal, and the consequences are horrifying.

Coal-fired power plants operating all across our state emit huge quantities of nitrogen oxide each year. In the summer, nitrogen oxide combines with sunlight and heat to create the ozone that drives Code Red smog days. Ozone and various particulates penetrate deep into the lungs - especially of children - and can exacerbate and even spawn chronic asthma. And with electricity use rising five times faster than population growth, it's no wonder some schools in Washington and Baltimore have asthma rates exceeding 20 percent.

Mercury poisoning is another rising health crisis associated with coal. Mercury, found naturally in coal, becomes airborne upon combustion and settles into waterways, where it concentrates in fish. U.S. fish consumption means that a staggering 8 percent of women of child-bearing age now have dangerous levels of mercury in their blood and 630,000 U.S. babies are born similarly poisoned each year.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that, like lead, threatens the brains and nervous systems of fetuses and young children. It can lead to sluggishness and lower intelligence in children. Unfortunately, Maryland, with its enormous reliance on coal-fired electricity, has one of the highest rates of environmental mercury contamination in America - 8.9 ounces per square mile.

Admittedly, the House energy bill, with its target of 7.5 percent clean electricity phased in over 10 years, would not by itself clean our air. But by spawning new demand for clean energy - especially wind power - and by joining forces with 14 other states with similar laws, the legislation would help usher in new economies of scale that, in turn, would dramatically lower prices for clean energy over time. This would drive consumer demand - exactly as intended - far beyond the legislative target and accelerate the process of phasing coal out of our lives.

The bill also fights global warming, arguably the greatest long-term threat to public health. Burning coal, oil and natural gas to generate electricity produces yet another dangerous gas: carbon dioxide, which migrates to the atmosphere and traps heat. Scientists predict a planetary warming of 3 to 10 degrees by 2100. Such warming in our region likely would spawn more mosquito-borne diseases, disrupt our food and drinking water supplies and lead to very severe heat waves.

Across America, heat waves kill more people each year than any other natural disaster, including tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. This deadly power was made clear last summer in Europe when 35,000 people died in a record heat wave. Similar prospects here in our region are alarming, especially for the urban poor, many of whom have no air conditioners or the money to run them during prolonged hot spells.

For all of these health concerns - global warming, mercury poisoning, asthma - and many others, the Maryland clean energy bill is just what the doctor ordered. We really do affect our air and our bodies every time we turn on a lamp or plug in the refrigerator.

Cindy Parker, a medical doctor, is on the staff of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Preparedness.

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