The Localized Health Impacts of Fossil Fuels


From extraction to combustion, fossil fuel operations put human health at serious risk

Environmental harm is often accepted as the necessary exchange for jobs and other benefits provided by the fossil fuel industry. But this often doesn’t take into account the safety risks of working these jobs, or the health impacts shouldered by the local communities.

According to a study published by MIT, air pollution from power generation causes 52,000 premature deaths per year and a study published by NYU revealed that the health costs associated with premature births from fossil fuel emissions add up to nearly $5 billion. A study published in the journal Science Advances of over 1.1 million births in Pennsylvania over nearly a decade found that women who lived within two miles of a fracking site were more likely to give birth to low-weight babies. Furthermore, Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data shows that workers employed in mining, quarrying, oil and gas extraction are nearly four times as likely to incur fatal and severe injuries than the average worker in the U.S.

From fossil fuel extraction to combustion, an array of health consequences are unleashed on local communities.

Coal extraction is linked to the four leading causes of death in the U.S.

Surface mines (including strip, open-pit, and mountaintop removal) emit chemical toxins during transport and from uncovered piles. Plumes of toxic arsenic and heavy metals are released into the air during mountaintop removal blasting, and then are pushed into adjacent valleys, buried in streams and leached into groundwater. There are currently no federal regulations to restrict fugitive coal dust.

Credit: Emily Sanders, 2015. Upper Big Branch Mine Memorial in West Virginia.

Coal combustion is linked to an array of public health problems

Once coal is extracted, workers in preparation plants use neurotoxic and carcinogenic chemicals to prepare the fuel for transport and  combustion. Coal ash containing toxic heavy metals is dumped into landfills, streams, and ponds, where it contaminates drinking water sources and can flood in heavy rains. Particulate pollution from coal combustion contributes five times as much as the average pollutant to chances of death from cardiovascular disease.

Credit: Emily Sanders. Marsh Fork Elementary school and coal silo, West Virginia.

Oil and gas extraction increases public’s exposure to hazardous materials

As indicated by local examples and by an Environmental Protection Agency study, hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) for oil and gas have the potential to contaminate surface water and groundwater. This can introduce unsafe levels of naturally occurring toxins, radioactive materials, and toxic heavy metals into drinking water. Fracking also increases toxic smog composed of volatile organic compounds (VOCs, or hazardous air pollutants).

Credit: ProPublica. Map shows pipeline accidents that have been labeled “significant incidents” from 1986 to the present.

Oil refining releases carcinogenic chemicals and harmful byproducts

Oil refining is a major health hazard for people living and working in nearby areas. Hydrocarbon, flue gas and particulate emissions from oil refining and combustion are correlated with increased risk of death from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. Workers in the oil and gas industries experience higher rates of occupational-related fatalities than all other U.S. industries combined.

  • Children residing in near proximity to major industrial installations (petroleum refineries in particular) experienced excessive premature mortality rates from leukemia and other cancers.
  • Oil refineries are vulnerable to leaks of dangerous chemicals as the result extreme weather events and other natural disasters. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, oil refineries and chemical plants released over 1 million pounds of toxic air pollutants known to harm human health and in some cases cause cancer.
  • Additional resources:

People of color are more impacted by power plants and toxic sites

Many studies show that power plants and toxic disposal sites are overwhelmingly located near people of color. This means that people of color are exposed to more airborne pollutants than whites. For example, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, a fossil fuel emission and major cause of heart disease, are 38 percent higher in non-white communities.

Credit: National Hispanic Medical Association Report “Latino Communities at Risk.” Figure shows number of asthma attacks experienced by Latino children caused by ozone attributable to oil and gas by metropolitan area.
  • According to a report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), approximately 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant.
    • African American children are three times as likely to be admitted to the hospital and two times as likely to die from an asthma attack as a white child.
  • Latinos are 51 percent more likely to live in counties with dangerous levels of ozone and Latino children are two times more likely to die from asthma than white children.
  • Native American communities across the U.S. continue to experience an ongoing legacy of health impacts from pipeline leaks that infiltrate drinking water, as well as respiratory illness, heart disease and cancers caused by pollution from coal plants.