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How Electric Technologies Will Improve Health

By Mills, Mark P. | Consumers' Research Magazine, July 1998 | Go to article overview

How Electric Technologies Will Improve Health

Mills, Mark P., Consumers' Research Magazine

Why is electricity so important to the world? Is it the glow of better reading light? The warmth of baseboard heat? Television? Nintendo?

Of course, it's farther-reaching than that. Electricity use is tightly linked to economic growth, for developing and industrial nations alike. Still, there's an even more compelling benefit to electrification: Human health. And we're not referring to the electric toothbrush or those massage chairs in the Sharper Image catalog.

Electrification is causally linked to improved health conditions and increased average life span. Consider this: The average national life span increases 10 years with each tenfold increase in per capita electric use (see graphic, page 16). This benefit comes at a cost of about $1,000 a year per capita. Increasing electricity use by this much is no mean feat. Is it any wonder that countries seek the cheapest sources of kilowatt-hours?

On average, the cheapest source of both existing and new kilowatt-hours is fossil fuel--coal in particular. Two-thirds of global power is fossil-fueled; that figure will rise to 70% by 2015, since fossil fuels account for nearly 80% of all planned and projected growth in world electric supply.

Environmentalists see increasing fossil fuel use to power electric plants as a health risk. That's because they don't grasp a basic connection: Electric demand is created by the use of electric technologies. Obvious, yet always overlooked.

Legislators must recognize the positive health impacts of using electric technologies before making policy decisions. They need to understand that--surprise!--price is a factor. You cannot get the benefits of electric technologies if the market cannot afford the electrons.

The electric technologies that drive the health/lifespan trend in developing nations are easy to recognize--largely refrigeration, irrigation, sanitation, and other core benefits of civilization. But those are the basics. The important question for post-industrial societies is whether or not there are significant health benefits from continued electrification--which is to say, finding new uses for electricity. After all, we already use 100 times more kilowatt-hours per capita than developing nations. The answer to this question is critical to current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health policy deliberations and (inconveniently for anticoal interests) intersects with the emerging competitive (a.k.a. "deregulated") electricity market in the United States.

Many sources, including the EPA, agree coal will play a leading role in providing future low-cost electricity. We can answer the health question by examining the character of emerging electric technologies. Mills-McCarthy & Associates surveyed its database of more than 500 new and emerging electric technologies (ETs) and found they are dominated by examples that will lead to a healthier environment.

Safety fin the Job. For instance, electric technologies can render harmless or even completely eliminate workplace hazards:

* Paint stripper. The highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical methylene chloride is the most common paint stripper. But electricity makes chemical-free paint stripping possible through powerful electric pumps to create a water "jet" that completely removes the paint.

* Industrial cleaners. Acid-free metal cleaning can be accomplished with a combination of electrolysis and ultrasound. Low-temperature plasma torches can replace solvents in industrial cleaning.

* Termite control. Liquid nitrogen (produced with chemical pumps and chillers) can be used in place of chemical toxins to destroy termites.

* Air-conditioning and pool chemicals. Fabricating, transporting, storing, and using chlorine exposes workers to health hazards. But electrically generated ozone can replace chlorine in commercial building cooling systems, and even in swimming pool water (especially for Olympic pools and at zoos).

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