Impact of energy on improving people’s lives— and the world’s most significant health risk
Posted by D Nathan Meehan July 9, 2014

Impact of energy on improving people’s lives— and the world’s most significant health risk.
My personal experience is that the availability of safe, clean energy is one of the most important things that contribute to improving the quality of life. Food, water, shelter are all essential; however, access to energy makes it possible for people to be self-reliant. With energy people may pursue literacy, knowledge and education rather than spending their days in sustenance-level pursuits. Energy provides the opportunity to prepare for emergencies and plan for future. Per capita energy consumption and more specifically per capita electricity consumption is highly correlated with a large number of indicators of quality of life(1) .
Specific indicators of quality of life associated with per capita energy use includes safe water access, life expectancy at birth, infant mortality rate, mean years of schooling, electrification level, Gross National Income per capita and levels of communicable disease. This blog entry addresses one specific example of how that lack of energy costs millions of lives annually. A recent study by the World Health Organization points out that air pollution tied to a lack of clean, affordable, accessible energy contributes to the largest source of avoidable deaths in the world.


Picture credit: WHO/Ajay Pillarisett(2)
According to the recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately seven million premature deaths in 2012 were due to air pollution(5), more than 60% (4.3 million) of which were due to household air pollution (HAP) linked to cooking and heating using wood, animal dung and crop waste.. More than half of deaths for children ages five and under are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter inhaled from soot. About three billion people still cook in their homes using solid fuels.
The deaths caused by air pollution represents one death out of every eight global deaths. Health risks for HAP are most severe for women and young children. Nearly 12,000 people die each day directly as a result of burning solid fuels in the home. To put this in context, malaria affects approximately 200 million people annually leading to approximately 627,000 deaths(3). This is a small fraction of the deaths caused by HAP. Annual HAP deaths are comparable to the death of every resident of Melbourne, Australia or Boston, Massachusetts each year.
The deaths caused by HAP include a variety of respiratory and heart diseases as shown in the following figure(4).


Other drawbacks of using solid fuels cited by WHO include:
• Injuries and loss of educational opportunities associated with spending significant time gathering fuel.
• High generation of sooty particles, methane and CO2 — all linked with climate change.
• Large numbers of burns, injuries and poisonings. Lack of lighting decreases opportunities to study or work.
Ambient air pollution (AAP) accounts for an additional 3.7 million deaths annually with 88% of these deaths in low- and middle-income countries. Many of the deaths from AAP can be linked to the use of coal for electric power generation.
Critics of unconventional oil and gas development often cite health and environmental concerns. Proper development of these resources necessitates careful planning, execution and monitoring to eliminate or minimize the possibility of spills, leaks or other such risks. If natural gas and other clean sources of energy were more widely available globally millions of lives could be saved and the quality of life of hundreds of millions of people could be improved.
Obviously the location of unconventional resources only coincidentally overlaps those areas with the highest mortality rates from HAP. However, global increases in oil and gas production hold the potential to provide greater access to energy and cleaner cooking and heating fuel sources. Safe oil and gas development including the use of state-of-the-art hydraulic fracturing can be an important part of decreased air pollution.


Photo Credit: WHO/ Heather Adair-Rohani
At the beginning of this blog post I mentioned my personal experience. My wife and I had the opportunity to spend a year and a half as welfare specialists coordinating humanitarian projects in Asia. I saw a lot of human needs and of course saw many of them through the eyes of a petroleum engineer. I am proud of our contribution to improving the quality of life and to work with so many technical experts with my employer and our clients who are committed to enabling and providing safe, clean and affordable energy.

[1] Cesar Pasten, Juan Carlos Santamaria, “Energy and Quality of Life,” Energy Policy 49 (2012) 468–476.




[5] World Health Organization news release dated 25 March 2014, Geneva “7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution”

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D Nathan Meehan