Energy & Environment

Researchers see links between renewable energy and improved health


This story originally appeared on The Hill’s publication Changing America.

Researchers are drawing more connections between reducing air pollution from fossil fuels and potential improvements to both mental and physical health.

Air pollution has been studied for decades, and researchers say the evidence for its negative effects on health has only grown in recent years. Recent studies have also started looking at how renewable energy might change things.

“The more we look the more we see in terms of different health outcomes that are associated with air pollution and then also the health effects at low levels of air pollution,” environmental epidemiologist Cathryn Tonne, an associate research professor at ISGlobal in Spain, told The Hill.

“Initially, much of the research focused on the respiratory system, which as you know is quite intuitive that your lungs would be impacted by what you breathe in,” she said. “It’s associated with such an enormous range of health outcomes.”

Some of the long-term health impacts are directly related to inhalation of air pollution and particulate matter affecting the lungs. Other long-term health effects are related to the cardiovascular system, the brain and even kidney function. A study published in 2018 found a connection between county-level air pollution and prevalence of chronic kidney disease among Medicare recipients.

Recent research has also tied air pollution levels to mental health and depression. For example, a study in Spain found links between increased air pollution concentration and increased odds of depression in a population over the span of five years. Other research has found links between increases in particulate matter and visits to the emergency room for mental health reasons.

Researchers are now looking at greater use of renewable energy and how it could reduce emissions and lower air pollution levels that in turn affect human health.

One case study in Iran found that if renewable energy made up more than 72 percent of the energy system carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 2,000 kg per household annually. If governments were to put in place policies to reach that proportion of renewable energy production, they could reach this target “very soon,” the study’s first author, Armin Razmjoo at the Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya in Spain, said in an email to The Hill.

Advocates and researchers argue that governments could choose to focus on incentivizing renewable energy. For example, Denmark has achieved 30 percent renewable energy. Germany has done even better at nearly 52 percent renewable energy during the first three months of 2020.

“There are some things we know to do that we simply aren’t doing,” said author and ethicist Harriet Washington. “It’s a staggering variety of ailments and incapacitation that is due to air pollution, and … we’re not acting against it vigorously enough.”

Many air pollution studies in recent years have focused on low level exposure to air pollution, like those found in many areas of Europe and the U.S.

“They’re looking at different health outcomes but almost universally find evidence of health effects at low levels of air pollution and in some cases really low levels of air pollution,” said Tonne. “So, we’re talking about Denmark, Sweden, parts of the U.S. that have very, very low levels of air pollution.”

For one study in Gothenburg, Sweden, researchers found associations between low levels of air pollution and ischemic heart disease in all participants and strokes in women.

Many air pollution regulations have established thresholds for pollution concentrations and may also focus on specific geographic hot spots. Tonne argued that instead of focusing on thresholds or hot spots, those policies could shift “the whole distribution of exposure in a population downwards.”

Policy should not just focus on urban areas where you might have air pollution levels exceeding standards, she said, but also include rural areas where there’s still important air pollution from agriculture and other sources.

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