The current debate about fossil fuels and the proposed Tesoro-Savage oil terminal in Vancouver brings to mind the Big Tobacco controversy that pitted strong corporate, political and economic forces against preservation of human lives and health.
German scientists in the 1920s first suspected a link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. This created little interest. In 1964, Dr. Luther Terry, the U.S. surgeon general, and his committee reviewed over 7,000 scientific studies and released a landmark report which confirmed a definite link between smoking and lung cancer, as well as heart disease and chronic lung disease.
Despite this and subsequent evidence causally implicating smoking — even second-hand smoke — with other types of cancer, the tobacco industry continued to flourish. It spent millions of dollars on lobbying and marketing, shamefully targeting young adults and teenagers.
We look back now with remorse at the tragic deaths and disabling illnesses that could have been prevented.
Fast forward and consider the proposed oil terminal on the Columbia River. Let’s not make the same mistakes. We are faced with potential adverse and dangerous health risks from proposed oil and coal terminals. In the years ahead, as these current risks become reality with fatal and disabling illnesses, we will regret that we didn’t resist the powerful corporate and political forces that tell us jobs and economic benefits outweigh any concerns about health or the environment.
With the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal we are dealing with a “triple whammy” — the diesel exhaust in transport; the leakage with unloading, loading and storage; and finally with the burning of oil. The culprit is air pollution, including small carbon particulate matter, ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxides, hydrogen sulfide, sulfates, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, butane and xylene.
What is the evidence linking air pollution to illness?
In 1993, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published a 20-year study by Harvard Medical School, “The 6-City Study,” correlating air pollution levels in six U.S. cities with mortality from heart and lung disease.
A 2013 study from the Public Health Division at the University of California involving 73,000 state residents suggested a causal effect of ground-level ozone to premature death from heart disease. Ground-level ozone (smog) is formed when nitrous oxides from diesel exhaust react with sunlight and heat.
One disturbing finding has been increased levels of benzene in the vicinity of oil terminals. Exposure to benzene is associated with blood disorders such as leukemia and aplastic anemia. Animal experiments with rats and mice reveal biochemical changes at the heart cell level with exposure to carbon particles and volatile organic compounds leading eventually to cellular death.
These are just a few examples of thousands of current scientific studies on risks associated with the fossil fuel industry. These points deserve emphasis:
• There is ample evidence that increased concentrations of dangerous pollutants are associated at all levels with fossil fuel production, transport and storage.
• When population studies, human and animal scientific observations, and basic biochemical research at the cell level are all in agreement that pollutants are dangerous to health, we should act on these findings. They should outweigh the inevitable counterargument of economic benefit (for whom?) and job creation — especially when there are health risks associated with those jobs.
• Beware the term “allowable levels” when a corporation is justifying the presence of a potentially toxic substance. This may translate, for instance, as “100 cancer deaths are bad but 50 or less are within acceptable range.”
• A fatal or disabling illness related to pollutants may not manifest for years after exposure. Prevention is key. Treatment years later may be fruitless in many cases.
The future safety, well-being and public health of our community depends on the choices we make today. Rejecting the proposed Tesoro-Savage oil terminal should be first on the list.
Stan Freidberg of Vancouver has spent 37 years practicing cardiology and internal medicine at The Vancouver Clinic. He is a 36-year member of Physicians for Social Responsibility.