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Health Risks of Fossil Fuels

By Chris Sherwood ; Updated June 13, 2017

Fossil fuels are among the most commonly used forms of energy in the world. Common fossil fuels include natural gas, coal and petroleum, which is refined to create gasoline. Although fossil fuels are strong sources of energy, their use can pose certain health problems if handled incorrectly.


The arsenic found in coal poses one potential health problem associated with fossil fuels. According to the United States Geological Survey, when coal is combusted to create energy, small amounts of arsenic can be released. Arsenic can also be released in discharges of mine water, potentially affecting local water supplies. Exposure to arsenic can come from direct contact with coal, but is more common with infected water supplies. Although rare, overexposure to coal-related arsenic can cause several health problems including liver poisoning, liver cancer and keratosis of the hands and feet.


Mercury is also present in coal, more specifically in the pyrite region of coal. Exposure to toxic levels of mercury can cause health problems including kidney damage, brain damage, nerve damage and fetal damage if exposed during pregnancy, states the Department of Health and Human Services.

Oil Vapors

Oil can also cause problems with health when over-exposed to oil vapors. For example, major oil spills can cause aerosolized particles to form, creating a toxic vapor. When inhaled, this vapor can cause headaches, vomiting, eye irritation and difficulty breathing. For those with lung diseases or asthma these vapors can become deadly. Direct inhalation of concentrated oil vapors can also cause "hydrocarbon pneumonia," a type of chemical pneumonia, states Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Oil can cause problems with rashes or other skin irritations when exposed directly to the skin.


Natural gas can cause serious health problems when not used appropriately. These dangers are largely due to methane exposure. Methane has no taste, color or odor, making it nearly impossible to detect without special equipment. In addition to the risk for ignition and explosion, methane exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty breathing. In severe cases of exposure methane can dramatically reduce the amount of available oxygen in the room, leading to eventual death from asphyxiation. Most home installations of natural gas now pump an additive in with the natural gas to give it a rotten-egg smell in order to ease detection and prevent serious health problems from occurring.

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