Unveiling the Public Health Burden of Natural Gas

July 19, 2021 | 10:00 am
a natural gas plant at night, with the full moon in viewAmerican Public Power Association
Radhika Duvvuri
Medical student, Carle Illinois College of Medicine

Environmental health has always been of concern to me, as it is to many of us. Climate change has affected our lives in seemingly inconsequential but sad ways, like white Christmases becoming green Christmases just within the span of my childhood, but also in substantial ways, like excessively hot summers and increased flooding, to name a couple. 

My personal interest in our planet’s health was bolstered by watching documentaries demonstrating the gargantuan levels of greenhouse gases emitted from livestock in our modern system of industrial agriculture, in addition to opening my eyes to the disproportionate effects of water pollution from hog farms in mainly Black communities. My long-held enthusiasm for human biology, public health, and service eventually prompted my decision to go to medical school, where I sought to enroll in the Climate Aware Physicians elective offered during our summer break. Among the plethora of knowledge about climate change I’ve gained in the past two weeks, I learned that natural gas may not be so great for public health after all, contrary to what the industry has told the public.

The truth about natural gas

Natural gas has replaced coal as the primary source of fuel for many sectors of the economy. While gas has a lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions profile than coal, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently sought to look beyond this initial story into the public health burden of natural gas based on 2008-2017 emissions data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What the researchers found sheds new light on natural gas and should urge our policymakers to ramp up the transition to renewable energy sources.

Looking specifically at three states in the Midwest–Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota–the negative public health impacts of gas are far from trivial.

Among coal, gas, oil, wood and biomass, in 2017 the combusted fuel that took the greatest toll on public health in Illinois through a pollutant known as PM2.5 was gas. This is according to all three models examined in the Harvard analysis, which predict public health impacts of emissions from various air pollutants. PM2.5 refers to particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller and is formed along with another key air pollutant, ozone, during the combustion of fossil fuels like natural gas. PM2.5 has been found to result in asthma exacerbation, heart attacks, airway irritation, difficulty breathing, coughing, and premature deaths for those with heart- or lung-related conditions.

Gas was found to create the greatest public health burden from PM2.5 in Illinois by all three models for commercial buildings and industrial boilers—and two of the three models found gas to have the worst public health impact from use in residential buildings. For commercial buildings, Minnesota shared similar findings as Illinois, while two models agreed on gas posing the greatest threat to public health in Michigan. In these states, and across the country as a whole, the need to replace gas in each of these sectors with cleaner resources is key to continuing to reduce the public health impacts of burning fossil fuels.

The Harvard analysis further showed that coal still had the greatest public health burden among all fuel sources in all three states for the electricity sector. While we should continue to phase out coal use to generate power, we need to consider what the aforementioned data suggest and not simply replace coal with natural gas for electricity, but instead turn to much cleaner sources altogether.

Additional data from the report further emphasizes the extent of the adverse health effects of natural gas. One model indicated that gas had greater impacts on health than coal in Illinois in 2014, and by 2018, all three models predicted this would be the case. In Michigan, a model showed that gas was worse than coal for public health in 2017, and by 2018, that was projected to remain true.

The impacts of natural gas on the US as a whole

Nationwide, the analysis painted the same bleak picture of natural gas. Gas had a worse public health burden than coal in the 48 states studied for residential buildings, almost all states for commercial buildings, less so but still significant for industrial boilers, and to a lesser extent (but growing) for electricity generation. Overall, the estimated financial burden of health impacts in 2018 ranged from $130 billion to $170 billion for gas and $150 billion to $170 billion for coal. Of note, one model predicted that gas would surpass coal in terms of its financial impacts that year.

While this analysis did an excellent job of covering the direct impacts of gas combustion on public health, the researchers discuss that it is important to also consider the indirect health burden wherein burning gas contributes to climate change, which in turn increases morbidity and mortality in various ways. If we truly want a healthy planet powered sustainably, gas cannot be the solution.

What we can do for a brighter future

Instead, we should support efforts to advance renewable energy like wind and solar power and increase energy efficiency measures to save consumers money and cut emissions. These technologies don’t require fuel and are significantly less risky than gas and coal from a financial perspective, not to mention avoiding the public health burdens described above. In each of the three states examined here—Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan—various proposals and initiatives are underway to transition towards clean energy economies while (ideally) minimizing reliance on gas. For example, in Illinois, the introduced Clean Energy Jobs Act would put the state on a path to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030 and 100% renewable energy by 2050. 

For these efforts to be successful, those of us in healthcare have to make sure we’re not part of the problem. Fortunately, the healthcare industry in particular can help to significantly decrease the country’s use of natural gas, as well as other fossil fuels. Key steps that healthcare workers can take to lessen our negative impact on the environment as well as public health involve advocating for the use of cleaner energy sources in clinics and hospitals as well as removing stock holdings from the fossil fuel industry. A shining example of a healthcare organization leading the way in this important endeavor is Gundersen Health Systems, a hospital network in Wisconsin that achieved energy independence in 2014.

So, the next time you hear that natural gas is a “cleaner” fuel, think twice and remember to see the full picture: gas isn’t clean and better alternatives are available. Our future–especially our future health–depends on it.