Coal boy using asthma pump

Published on December 5th, 2013 | by Don Lieber

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SO2 & NOx — #2 & 3 In "Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries" Series

December 5th, 2013 by

This is part of a 10-part series on the “Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Used By The Fossil Fuel Industries.” Read, share, and check in tomorrow for the next part, which will focus on benzene.

2. & 3. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)

boy using asthma pumpFossil Fuel Sources: Oil, Coal, and Gas

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are two primary examples of particle-forming air pollutants (particulate matter) from coal power plants. Particulate matter is known to contribute to serious health problems, including lung cancer and other cardiopulmonary mortality.  SO2 and NOx are both highly toxic to human health, and contribute directly to thousands of hospitalizations, heart attacks, and deaths annually.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health, for example, labels Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) “extremely toxic.” At high concentrations, it can cause life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema).  Inhalation of SO2 particles is associated with emphysema and bronchitis.  It is linked to to respiratory ailments including chronic lung disease and asthma, and to heart disease.  It can be fatal upon inhalation at high exposure rates.    SO2 is particularly dangerous for children.  Studies correlate low-level SO2 emissions from petroleum refineries to higher rates of childhood asthma in children who live or attend school in proximity to those refineries.

Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) are equally dangerous:  Small particles of NOx can penetrate deeply into sensitive lung tissue and damage it, causing premature death in extreme cases.

The largest sources of combined global SO2 and NOx emissions are from fossil fuel combustion at power plants and other industrial facilities.

Particulate matter, including SO2 and NOx,  inevitably enters homes, schools, and residential areas in proximity to fossil fuel refineries.   The American Journal of Public Health in 2009 reported that high levels of sulfur dioxide, associated with local oil refining, was found in residential homes in Richmond, California — a community which straddles four major oil refineries.  One of the largest refineries there – the huge Richmond Chevron refinery –  processes up to 240,000 barrels of crude oil per day. In 2010 alone, it released some 575,669 pounds of chemicals, including SO2, into air, water, and waste facilities.

Indeed, residents of Richmond suffer statistically significant higher risks of dying from heart disease and strokes and are more likely to go to hospitals for asthma than any other nearby county residents.

Conversely, one study in France reported a significant reduction in hospital visits related to SO2 exposure during a recent national oil-refinery strike in France — when oil production – and SO2 emissions – ceased.

SO2 and NOx emissions represent a known and significant health risk – from routine, fully functional oil, gas, and coal production.   These dangers, however, become magnified when fossil fuel accidents are taken into account.   More than 42,000 tons of SO2 were released from oil and gas accidents — in Texas alone — between 2009 and 2011.   And that’s what’s reported.

The fossil fuel industry has a long history of under-reporting accidents and, with particular insidiousness, hiding accidents from the public altogether — such as the 300 oil pipeline spills in North Dakota which, since 2010, have never been reported.

This raises the question: just how much SO2 and NOx is emitted from fossil fuel sources, and exposed to the public, without anyone ever knowing about it?

Note From The Author

There are many reasons to reject fossil fuels now, after 200 years of their reign as society’s primary energy source.

History will articulate both the benefits provided to human society derived from fossil fuel energy technologies from 1750 to the present — and the extensive costs.

In addition to transportation, electricity, industrial power, military, and medical applications; fossil fuel technologies are also a core element behind war, political unrest, human rights abuses, extreme and permanent environmental degradation, and human disease.

Perhaps the most important historical legacy of fossil fuels, however, will be their collective role as the chief protagonist behind what may be the most urgent long-term global crisis in human history: greenhouse gas–induced climate change.

It is my hope that this list, focusing on immediate public health risks (apart from climate change), serves as an adjunct to the myriad other reasons to end the use of fossil fuels — all of them — completely.

The ten ‘ingredients’ listed in this article are not intended as an exclusive list. The major fossil fuels (oil, coal, gas) each use hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals — often not disclosed — many of which are highly dangerous to human health. Attempting a comprehensive list of all the harmful chemicals used willingly by the oil, coal, and gas industries would be far beyond the scope of this blog series.

This article, rather, represents some of the more commonly cited toxic ingredients in the public literature; a ‘starting point’ in reviewing the overall public health dangers inherent across the spectrum in all three major fossil fuel extraction industries: oil, coal, and natural gas.

Don Lieber
New York City
November 2013

Stay tuned for the #1 toxic ingredient used by the fossil fuel industries, as well as a wrap-up article will all 10 included.

Image Credit: boy using asthma pump via Shutterstock

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About the Author

Don Lieber has written extensively on international human rights, war and disarmament, and climate justice. His writings have have been published by the United Nations, The Associated Press, The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, DeSmog Blog, E-The Environmental Magazine, and others. He is a frequent contributor to PlanetSave. When not writing about climate change, he plays bass for the NYC-based band "Wifey".



  • Sherrie

    “Access to water is a common goal. It is central in the social, economic
    and political affairs of the country, African continent and the world.
    It should be a lead sector of cooperation for world development.”
    –Nelson Mandela. In times past, most of us assumed water woud stay abundant and free from the kinds of poison that fracking operations create By now we’ve seen the stats on the mindbogging am’ts of H20 that becomes frackwater—

  • Sherrie

    “Access to water is a common goal. It is central in the social, economic
    and political affairs of the country, African continent and the world.
    It should be a lead sector of cooperation for world development.”
    –Nelson Mandela. In times past, most of us assumed water woud stay abundant and free from the kinds of poison that fracking operations create By now we’ve seen the stats on the mindbogging am’ts of H20 that becomes frackwater—

  • SLP

    Author Don: I was going to just wait to see the promised Wrap-up articIe, but by now, am one of those foIks who gravitates here anyway Had no idea re these–S02 and N0x–so “thanks” again for stuff we all wish we didn’t have to be thanking anyone for. You & my feIIow reader/doers reaIize I try to leave off on a positive note We can stiII be royally bummed, no shortage of that So: This year, we secured retirement of one-third of US coal-fired power pIants–149 dirty coal pants have been retired or scheduled for closing, PREVENTING HUNDREDS 0F Milli0NS 0F T0NS 0F CLIMATE DISRUPTING P0LLUTI0N FR0M GETTING INT0 0UR AIR AND WATER ! –> Thanks to Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign~

  • SLP

    Author Don: I was going to just wait to see the promised Wrap-up articIe, but by now, am one of those foIks who gravitates here anyway Had no idea re these–S02 and N0x–so “thanks” again for stuff we all wish we didn’t have to be thanking anyone for. You & my feIIow reader/doers reaIize I try to leave off on a positive note We can stiII be royally bummed, no shortage of that So: This year, we secured retirement of one-third of US coal-fired power pIants–149 dirty coal pants have been retired or scheduled for closing, PREVENTING HUNDREDS 0F Milli0NS 0F T0NS 0F CLIMATE DISRUPTING P0LLUTI0N FR0M GETTING INT0 0UR AIR AND WATER ! –> Thanks to Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign~

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