Cheap energy poses a threat to Americans’ health

One of the most talked-about initiatives taking place in public health, with funding supports from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), is policy, system, and environmental change to address the rise of chronic disease in the United States, the country’s leading cause of death. According to the CDC, chronic diseases are responsible for seven out of 10 deaths of all Americans annually, and one half of all Americans have at least one chronic illness. Worse, three-quarter of the $2.5 trillion (yes trillion) dollars spent annually on health care in the United States goes to battling chronic diseases. The CDC’s grant funding is being disbursed to health departments to undertake a range of interventions. But none of these interventions is going after what some say is one of major sources for the rise of obesity and chronic disease—the cheap price of energy in the United States.

According to Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the overall obesity rate is highest in the United States among all other nations because the price of gasoline is very low. “So where gasoline is really cheap, we over-consume it, it’s bad for the environment and actually because we should be using food energy for human movement – if we use gasoline for human movement, then we store the food energy and you know where we store it.” And there are other costs associated with being a fat nation, says Roberts. “So there’s obviously an increased demand on food supplies, but also there is an increased demand on everything. You know, bigger people need more energy to move them. Airplanes take more energy to get off the ground. It takes more of the shares that, you know, of the Earth’s resources to actually support all that extra weight.”

In the United States, the U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates we use 317 million BTUs per person a year. In this country, nearly half of all of our energy comes from petroleum and natural gas, and the country ranks seventh globally in terms of per capita energy use, trailing Canada and some smaller nations like Luxembourg and Trinidad and Tobago. However, the United States is  No. 2 (19% of global demand) in terms of global consumption of energy after China (20.3% of global demand), which just took the No. 1 slot.

Feeder pipelines gather crude oil produced at Prudhoe Bay, which is eventually shipped to the lower 48 for consumption on the West Coast.

A significant negative outcome can be seen in the widening waistlines of Americans. Charles Courtemanche of the Department of Economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro published a study in 2009  (A Silver Lining? The Connection Between Gasoline Prices and Obesity) that found increases in gas prices were associated with an uptick in walking or bicycling and public transportation use (and more people walking to bus and subway stops) and a drop in the how often people eat at restaurants, all impacting weight. Courtemanche estimates that:

– A $1 rise in the price of gasoline would reduce overweight and obesity by 7% and 10% in the U.S. The reduction in obesity would save approximately 11,000 lives and $11 billion per year, savings that would offset 10% of the increased expenditures on gasoline.

– An 8% of the recent rise in obesity from 1979 to 2004 can be attributed to the decline in real gasoline prices during the period.

According to Dr. Brian Schwartz, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences and co-director of the School’s Program on Global Sustainability and Health, cheap energy also is responsible for creating our built environment, which is exacerbating our poor health trends. Schwartz argues that since World War II, the United States and other developed countries “have invested in large tracts of low density, non-compact, single use developments, which are highly reliant on the automobile and often lack public transit options.  This type of housing and transportation system is totally reliant on cheap and plentiful oil.”

The built environment of U.S. suburbs has been shaped by the relatively cheap price of petroleum paid by U.S. consumers at the pump.

Schwartz argues the average foodstuff in the United States requires about 10 units of fossil fuel-based energy input for each unit of food energy derived from the food, and that ratio jumps to 100 to 1 for many meats. Less energy would lead to declines in food calories too, as many kinds of food would become too expensive to produce and too expensive for consumers. What’s more, Schwartz suggest that this unsustainable suburban lifestyle would change dramatically after peak oil, that future and historic moment when global production of both oil and natural gas reaches its historic peak and begins to decline, setting off chain reactions impacting every facet of our life to what we eat, how we work, how goods and people move about, and how nations respond on a massive scale. (Go here for a summary of peak oil and its health impacts, as explained by Schwartz.)

Schwartz also notes that our entire health care delivery system, on top of our suburban-sprawl development pattern, food production systems, and supply chains, also is tied to unsustainably cheap energy in the form of cheap fossil fuel. “Large energy-inefficient health care facilities are staffed by health care workers living in distant suburbs who require large quantities of paper, plastic, and electronics to do their work. Systems for provision of care will need to be completely redesigned to adapt to the new reality of more expensive energy.”

Portland, Ore., that oh-so progressive Northwest city that has become a beacon of contemporary planning that tries to vaguely resemble what they do in Netherlands or Denmark, for instance, already has assembled a Peak Oil Task Force, back in 2006. The group prepared a report and drafted a resolution, passed by the City Council in 2007. That resolution sets out an ambitious goal to “reduce oil and natural gas use in Portland by 50 percent in 25 years and take related actions to implement recommendations of the Peak Oil Task Force.” It may be no surprise Portland was recently ranked the No. 1 biking community in the United States.

What continues to baffle me is how unengaged or willfully silent the United States’ professional public health system is to the connection between cheap energy and health, notably obesity. I just did a keyword search today (Sept. 3, 2012) on the word “obesity” for the upcoming American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting and Exposition to be held in San Francisco in October 2012. There were 797 hits for the word–many for papers being presented on the topic. When I typed in the word “oil” I yielded 33 hits, some on the Deep Horizon oil spill and its impacts and others on shale gas development, such as a paper being presented by Dr. Roxana Witter of the University of Colorado called “Comprehending health implications of natural gas development through public health research.” But I saw no papers on any linkage between the so-called “obesygenic environment” and energy prices tagged under the word “oil” in the searchable database of presentations and papers. I did a search for the word “energy” and got 82 hits, but most related to topics like high-energy drinks, not on oil, gas, or energy policy issues impacting human health.

Seattle like other cities is entirely dependent on relatively cheap petroleum, and as a consequence suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion of any metro area in the country, as well as a sprawl development in the city and throughout surrounding King County.

I dream of the day when public health professionals will organize their advocacy less around what kids eat at school and talk more about what our state and national lawmakers are doing to create meaningful tax policy that prices energy–making it more expensive while using revenues to promote renewable energy sources–to create larger downstream impacts. To completely cede this issue to supporters of cheap energy and the status quo and to deny that there are serious public health implications by doing so is to turn one’s back on best available evidence and the duties those in the field have to promote healthy outcomes for the U.S. population.  I did try to raise this issue in one of my classes at the University of Washington School of Public Health, and was met with unusual silence. I hope one day perhaps UW faculty in the economics department, school of business, and schools of public health and public affairs get together one day to pursue research examing negative health impacts of national energy policy.

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