Our Health and Our Energy

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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 industry...it'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.