Oil Industry Knew Health Damage Of Fossil Fuel Burning For 50 Years, Investigation Finds

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Oil firms were aware of the dangers that fossil fuel burning posed to human health for at least half a century, reveals a new investigation by the Guardian. Documents showed companies fighting clean air regulations, despite knowing that air pollution caused by their operations were driving grave ill effects, from birth defects to asthma in children. 

The oil industry has known for at least 50 years that air pollution as a result of burning fossil fuels was having serious health consequences on its workers and the wider public, according to internal memos and reports reviewed by the Guardian. Despite being aware of the scientific evidence pointing to the link between fossil fuel air pollution and acknowledging its role in being “real villains in health effects”, oil firms continued to spend huge sums of money to lobby against clean air regulations. 

Petroleum firms also knowingly funded disinformation campaigns to encourage doubt surrounding the scientific consensus that was forming around the issue of air pollution and the industry’s responsibility over the millions of deaths it causes globally each year. The latest body of evidence estimates that burning fossil fuels directly contributes 4.5 million deaths and economic losses of US$2.9 trillion annually. 

Read: Mass migration to become norm without urgent action on air pollution, climate experts warn

“Echoing the fossil-fuel industry’s history of undermining of climate science, oil and gas interests released a torrent of material aimed at raising uncertainty over the harm caused by air pollution and used this to deter U.S. lawmakers from placing further limits on pollutants,” wrote Guardian environment journalist Oliver Milman. 

Air pollution from fossil fuel burning is responsible for millions of deaths every year. (Image Source: Kris Krüg / Flickr)

Echoing the fossil-fuel industry’s history of undermining of climate science, oil and gas interests released a torrent of material aimed at raising uncertainty over the harm caused by air pollution and used this to deter U.S. lawmakers from placing further limits on pollutants.

Oliver Milman, Environment Reporter, Guardian

Among the plethora of historical documents, internal reports and memos obtained by the paper, Exxon subsidiary Imperial Oil was shown to have recognised by early as 1967 that the industry was a “major contributor to many of the key forms of pollution” and conducted polls involving “mothers who worried about possible smog effects”. By 1980, Imperial Oil was already aware of and investigating “birth defects among industry worker offspring”. 

Another internal report, dating back to 1968 from oil giant Shell, warned that the petroleum firms need to “reluctantly” acknowledge that cars were a major source of air pollution and would lead to difficulty breathing, lung damage – including carcinogens – and other long-term chronic health problems.

Read: Air pollution associated with higher risk of childhood obesity, research finds

As independent academics and scientists began to bring into the public limelight the influence of air pollution on health, building a stronger consensus in the 1990s with landmark studies such as the Harvard “six cities” report that linked deaths from heart disease and lung cancer to the issue, oil companies quickly began undermining air pollution science in fear of clean air regulation. 

For instance, one scientist, backed by the fossil fuel industry group the American Petroleum Institute (API), told a congressional hearing in 1997 that such links between mortality and health pollution were “weak”, while Exxon commissioned a study to conclude “no substantive basis” for the association between the tiny particulate matter in the atmosphere – PM2.5 – and deaths. 

Speaking to the Guardian, Carroll Muffett, chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law, said: “The fossil-fuel industry was sowing uncertainty to maintain business as usual, and in all likelihood they were collaborating with other groups, such as the tobacco industry.”

Oil companies have known for at least half a century the disastrous health consequences of air pollution from their fossil fuel operations. (Image Source: Deposit Photos)

Muffett continued: “When you look at these historical documents in context it becomes clear that the oil and gas industry has a playbook they’ve used again and again for an array of pollutants. They used it around climate change but absolutely we are seeing it around PM2.5 as well. It’s the same pattern.”

The fossil-fuel industry was sowing uncertainty to maintain business as usual, and in all likelihood they were collaborating with other groups, such as the tobacco industry.

Carroll Muffett, Chief Executive, Center for International Environmental Law

Read: Harvard scientists find link between air pollution and Covid-19 fatalities 

Experts note that still, to this day, industry giants continue to fund campaigns to sow denial over the scientific facts on air pollution and other environmental impacts, including driving the climate crisis, especially during the Trump administration. 

“We’ve seen the oil and gas industry’s disinformation campaign come full circle with the renewed attacks on research that tells us what we’ve known for decades – air pollution kills,” Kert Davies, director of Climate Investigations Center, told the paper. 

This is only the latest in a long line of investigations uncovering the efforts of fossil fuel firms to disparage policies to protect the environment and human health, with a recent SourceMaterial and HuffPost report detailing the moves of Anglo-Dutch global oil and gas giant Shell to block recent efforts by U.S. banks to tackle climate change

In another inquiry, led by Greenpeace’s journalism team Unearthed, found fellow fossil fuel behemoth BP has been funnelling millions of dollars from its venture capital unit, which was supposed set up to transition the firm into a low carbon economy, into a number of dirty energy ventures. 


Lead image courtesy of Pixabay.


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