Saving the Climate — and Workers’ Health

Some weeks ago, my former Worldwatch colleague Zoë Chafe—now a PhD student with the Energy and Resources Group of the University of California at Berkeley—queried me whether I was aware of any major occupational health and safety issues in the renewable energy industry.

What quickly came to mind was a March 2008 newspaper story about polysilicon, a material critical to the solar photovoltaics (PV) industry. The article reported that a number of Chinese companies were cutting corners in the rush to fill booming demand and keep costs low. Instead of recycling a highly toxic byproduct, silicon tetrachloride, the companies were stockpiling the substance in drums or simply dumping it, rendering land infertile and exposing both workers and surrounding citizens to dangerous concentrations of chlorine and hydrochloric acid.

Raw silicon. Image courtesy of Le Piment.

Raw silicon. Image courtesy of Le Piment.

It may be tempting to regard this as just another case of China’s “Wild East” development model. The truth is that the solar PV industry, regardless of location, uses “extremely toxic materials or materials with unknown health and environmental risks,” in the words of a January 2009 Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition report. The study speaks of a “limited window of opportunity to ensure that this extremely important industry is truly ‘clean and green,’ from its supply chains through product manufacturing, use, and end-of-life disposal.”

But it’s also important to assess the situation in a comparative manner. How does the renewable energy industry compare with the one it seeks to replace—the fossil fuels industry? Zoë kindly sent me an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that examines this question. The piece notes that there are some limits concerning available data and studies, and more comprehensive assessments will be needed in the future.

Nonetheless, the authors conclude that occupational hazards in the fossil fuel sector—with regard to mining and power plant operations—are substantially higher than those associated with wind and solar energy. This is true not just in absolute terms (the fossil sector is presently still so much bigger), but also with regard to the relative risks (i.e., per unit of output.)

The perhaps most rigorous comparative assessment to date, undertaken by the European Union, confirmed this judgment. In the U.S. context, the JAMA authors find that “the potential occupational health benefits of transitioning to renewable energies are considerable.”

The wind and solar industries hold tremendous potential to halt humanity’s race to the climate precipice. Their appeal will be even stronger if they are developed in such a way as to respect not only environmental limits, but also to protect those who often find themselves on the frontline of exposure—the world’s workers.

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