Our Health and Our Energy

Monday, March 28, 2011


Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, David Biello, associate editor of Scientific American, talked about the health risks associated with oil, coal, nuclear, natural gas and other sources of energy.

With the breakdown of the nuclear reactors in Japan on our mind, which energy source is actually worse for us? David Biello said it depends on how you measure the effects and that's no easy task. Every single energy source has its risks.

Nuclear Energy

China has the world's largest new nuclear power production and it's a "laboratory" for some of these new technologies.

Obviously some radioactive iodine and cesium is getting in to the environment but the question is whether people will somehow ingest that, that's the real danger.  If you drink it, if you eat it and it gets on your body and you don't wash it off immediately, that's where the bad effects start to occur.  As long as you can avoid that, and that's why the Japanese government is encouraging people to stay inside...if you can avoid these radioactive particles you will be okay.

Without the Indian Point power plant, New York City would lose 30 percent of its electricity.

The problem with nuclear is actual deaths are very, very low, but the risks of a very large amount of deaths is always there...if any nuclear plant melts down there are a lot of deaths at stake.

The nuclear industry has unfortunately a long track record of being less than forthcoming with information and that has lead to what I think is the primary crisis facing the nuclear's trust.  We don't' trust them and the reason is that their economic interests are not aligned with our health interest. Their economic interests are to run the plant as much as possible, to potentially not maintain it as safely as possible...our health interest is that the plants don't melt down.


Hundreds and thousands of deaths are associated with burning coal every year. These deaths are largely from air pollution which is made worse by other fossil fuels that we burn. Oil burning promotes asthma here in New York and around the world.

In China we're looking at hundreds of thousands of people who are impacted by air pollution that is so bad, smog that is so thick, having been there I can attest to this, that it's like smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day and we all know how bad that is for you so there's no question that coal is, quite frankly, a killer.

Air pollution accounts for more deaths than car accidents, drunk drivers, soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan all put together. If you add all those numbers up, air pollution deaths far out-weigh that but we don't really think about air pollution as a major health problem, but it is.


Burning fossil fuels is by far the worst method and is still 50 percent of our energy supply.

Burning oil in our cars, and in our trucks most particularly, produces what's called fine particulate matter. That's the stuff that when you breathe it in, it's going to cause asthma, it's going to cause all kinds of cardiovascular problems. This is not stuff you want to be breathing.

Hydro-electric power

If a damn goes down, it will kill more people than any other power source. There is an aging damn infrastructure in the US and some of these damns are in earthquake-prone areas.

Anytime a damn breaks there are severe consequences. It is the most risky energy source but it is not one that we tend to be afraid of.

Solar power

If you're a roofer or if you work in silicone production, solar power is also risky.

There actually are some pretty significant risks and if you want to talk about environmental damage, there is a lot of dumping of silicone manufactured bi-products in places like China that actually do have some pretty significant health risks.



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Comments [23]

Amy from Manhattan

Edward from NJ: Thanks, I'll check out that link!

Mar. 28 2011 01:52 PM
Estelle from Austin

THANK YOU, Brian, for pointing out that global warming, in current political discourse, overshadows the other, equally serious, dangers of air pollution. I think this is really an Achilles heel for advocates of environmental responsibility. We're shooting ourselves in the foot with it.

Mar. 28 2011 01:34 PM

Before the Enron brownouts in California were recognized as an extortionist scam, tremendous creative resources were volunteered toward energy conservation - with measurable, successful results there. If the resources devoted to merely lobbying for nuclear power, let alone subsidies & gov't insurance for the plants, were instead directed to developing renewables and large-scale conservation, we would see a safer, healthier world... with increased human happiness and decreased medical bills.
Nuke waste is an unsolved problem & compounding danger (accidents, radiation, pollution of land & groundwater, terrorist threats) which will never go away.
Also: Wind power does have serious health effects on people living in its immediate radius, not to be minimized.

Mar. 28 2011 11:51 AM
Edward from NJ

@Amy from Manhattan, yes waste heat can be put to good use. It's called cogeneration.

Mar. 28 2011 11:32 AM
Ryan Enschede from Brooklyn

While it may not be the intent of this show, I believe the frame that has been chosen for this conversation suggests a false need to continue the use of these sources of energy.

The larger issue is that we use unsustainable amounts of energy, in large part due to the continuation of outdated, 19th-century technologies like incandescent lighting. Why can we not make these painless changes? I believe due to poor education and general awareness.

Please remind your listeners of the larger frame.

Mar. 28 2011 11:30 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Is there any way the heat from power plants could be captured & used as a power source itself instead of being dumped into the water?

Mar. 28 2011 11:28 AM
Gregg from SoHo

Picking up from carolita, please tell me about the tremendous health risks of conservation.

Mar. 28 2011 11:27 AM
Phil from Park Slope

Please ask about the risks of electromagnetic radiation from high capacity transmission lines.

This is one argument for locally produced energy like solar, wind, tidal, small scale hydro.

Mar. 28 2011 11:24 AM
Amy from Manhattan

On hydro, what about the effects upstream, in the areas that are flooded when the dam is built? Humans have to leave (& are compensated if they're lucky), & animals lose habitat & often have no place to go. The Three Gorges dam in China flooded a huge area.

Mar. 28 2011 11:24 AM
Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa from Brooklyn

What about the issue of disposing nuclear waste? It still seems like a huge question mark for evaluating the safety of that source of energy.

Mar. 28 2011 11:23 AM
Edward from NJ

Regarding air pollution related deaths, is the age of the people a factor in public perception? If a 75 year old dies of emphysema, people think of that as "dying of old age" even though that death might count toward to fossil fuel toll.

Mar. 28 2011 11:22 AM
Charlotte from Westchester County

Isn't nuclear power the only energy souce where an accident can cause severe ill effects to fetuses and, by affecting genetic material, damage to future generations?

Mar. 28 2011 11:21 AM
Mitch from nj

One of the biggest risks of any of these energy sources is the threat of terrorists getting their hands on spent fuel. The more we rely on nuclear fission, the more high-level nuclear waste generated, and without a ironclad way to store, transport and store the stuff it just makes it more likely some crazed terrorists can make a dirty bomb.

Mar. 28 2011 11:18 AM
Bryan Marx from downtown

We must not forget that with nuclear we must also consider the problem of many generations of storing the waste. . We should be plugging our automobiles into our roofs. Why do we continue to discuss oil, coal, nuclear. . and do not invest in alternatives. Also, is it not a statistical fact that if every American simply replaced their light bulbs then we would not need to build a new power plant for 30 years?

Mar. 28 2011 11:18 AM

(More relevant -- what do the insurance companies say? Real estate markets? How are house values and lives quantified near nuclear plants vs. near coal burning ones? In our capitalistic society I would think that an adjuster has the answer to this question at the ready.)

Mar. 28 2011 11:18 AM

Airplane crashes don't pemanently contaminate the area for miles around.

Mar. 28 2011 11:17 AM
Bryan Marx from downtown

We must not forget that with nuclear we must also consider the problem of many generations of storing the waste. . We should be plugging our automobiles into our roofs. Why do we continue to discuss oil, coal, nuclear. . and do not invest in alternatives. Also, is it not a statistical fact that if every American simply replaced their light bulbs then we would not need to build a new power plant for 30 years?

Mar. 28 2011 11:17 AM
Ruta from NYC

We are we not talking about Hydro electricity,
a major source of clean energy in Canada?

Mar. 28 2011 11:15 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Please don't leave the risks of obtaining coal out of this discussion, both underground mining & "mountaintop removal."

Mar. 28 2011 11:15 AM
David from West Hempstead

It's quite simple, really: people are afraid of nuclear because they don't understand it.

Mar. 28 2011 11:15 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Apples to oranges? I'd say it's more like apple seeds to apple trees, the seeds being the short-term risks we're hearing about from the nuclear plant in Japan & the trees being the long-term risks from the nuclear waste such plants produce. We still haven't figured out a safe way to dispose of it.

Mar. 28 2011 11:13 AM

Agree, obviously.

One small example -- Imagine Poland Springs getting dumped with frack liquid. That's happening world over.

Mar. 28 2011 11:12 AM
carolita from nyc

please, tell me the health risks of solar energy, I'm very worried.

Mar. 28 2011 10:24 AM

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