Most of the time, our awareness of getting electricity is limited to flipping switches and pushing buttons. But those electrons that let you watch The Daily Show have been through a long, complicated journey on the way to your room – and affected all kinds of communities and ecosystems along the way. Fortunately, most of us don’t have firsthand experience with the negative consequences of electricity production. But all too often, these burdens are shouldered by those who don’t have the means to fight them: minority and low-income communities, as well as sensitive ecosystems. As you practice becoming mindful of your electrons during NYUnplugged, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how they got to your room.
How does electricity generation affect my health?
Electricity production is the leading cause of industrial air pollution in the United States, which comes in the forms of smog, soot, acid rain, mercury, particulate matter, and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Air pollution has drastic effects on human health, causing ailments both acute, like bronchitis, and chronic, like asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, and cardiopulmonary disease.
Nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter are all types of air pollution created in the production of electricity from natural gas and coal. Nitrogen oxide reacts with sunlight to create ground level ozone and smog, which irritate the lungs and lower resistance to infections like the flu, causing over 1.5 million significant respiratory problems per year. Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain, and affects breathing, increases respiratory illness, and aggravates cardiovascular diseases. Particulate matter, or soot, doesn’t feel good on anyone’s lungs, and is particularly harmful to people with lung disease, like bronchitis or emphysema, and heart disease.
Coal-fired power plants also release mercury, a highly toxic metal that accumulates in the cells of fish and other animals that eventually get eaten by humans. Once consumed, mercury causes permanent damage to the liver and central nervous system; if consumed by pregnant women, it can also cause birth defects.
Nuclear energy, though lauded by some for emitting a relatively low amount of carbon dioxide and other airborne pollutants than other sources of energy, has its own set of health issues. When nuclear energy is produced and transported, there is always some amount (often a very small one) of danger of radiation and radioactive waste, which can cause cancer, sterility, immune system damage, miscarriages, genetic mutations, and death.
Finally, all of these energy sources emit greenhouse gases. Although the effects of global warming on individual health are indirect, they are significant. For example, a recent study done by Australian researchers found that during heat waves, hospital admissions increased by 7%; this does not bode well for a warmer future. More concretely, many different scientific reports have predicted that tropical and mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, will become more prevalent as global warming increases.
How does electricity generation affect social justice?
The health impacts of energy production do not    affect all communities equally. Globally, people   in developing countries are more exposed to    energy-related air pollutants and are more    vulnerable to the negative effects of global   warming; within the U.S., low-income and   minority communities tend to be the most   affected by low air quality and least able to   access services to alleviate the ailments that   accompany it. Power plants in the US are   overwhelmingly concentrated in low-income   areas; for example, the poverty rate within   one mile of coal-fired power plants is almost double that of the poverty rate of the US population as a whole, with a larger proportion of majority residents than white residents. In every part of the country, there are many similar figures. It is no surprise, then, that asthma is 36% more prevalent among African-Americans than among whites; this disparity is exacerbated by the fact that African-Americans are less likely to have access to disease management services which control the severity of the ailment.
How does electricity generation affect the environment?
Extracting and burning the fossil fuels from which we get the majority of our electricity takes a terrible toll on the earth. Most notably, of course, energy production contributes to global warming. But there are many local consequences, as well, ranging from contaminated groundwater to air pollution, to destruction of habitat.
Mountain top removal – a case study
Much of the coal that powers 14% of NYU’s dorms is mined in the Appalachian region, using one of the most destructive industrial processes in history: mountain top removal. In this process, coal companies deforest a mountain to be mined, use explosives to blast the top layer off (up to 500 feet) and pick off the seams of exposed coal for use to generate electricity.
The trees are sold for lumber, while the debris is pushed into the valley below. The coal extracted must then be washed to remove excess soil and rock. This generates sludge – a liquid mixture of coal, soil and rock that is collected and stored in sludge ponds trapped by dams at mine locations. There are over 600 sludge impoundments in the southeast region.
Some Environmental Consequences of mountain top removal:
- Between 1984 and 2001 6,700 “Valley Fills” were approved by the US government in the Appalachian region.
- 5% of forest cover in Southern West Virginia forest cover is gone due to mountain top mining alone.
- Over 700 miles of headwater streams in the region have been buried by valley fill.
- High levels of toxic minerals such as selenium have entered into streams near MTR areas from mine and valley fill runoff. These minerals are decreasing river bio-diversity in the region and harming ecosystems.
- In October, 2000, 306 million gallons of sludge broke through the sludge dam and flowed into the Big Sandy river in Martin County, Kentucky, as part of what the EPA called “the worst environmental disaster in the history of the southeast.” The sludge traveled downstream, killing virtually all aquatic life in its path for over 70 miles.
- Appalachian Voices, focused on environmental protection in the Appalachian region
- Washington Post Article on Coal Mining in Appalachia
- EPA Environmental Impact Statement on MTR in Appalachia
- Rainforest Action Network (RAN) Mountaintop Removal site