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This One-Second Action Could Save Someone's Life

A quick and easy act could have ripple effects on health and the environment.

Source: pixel2013/Pixabay

One Small Step

How would you like an easy way to…

  • Save a life?
  • Improve your own health and that of those around you?
  • Protect the environment?
  • Spend less money on utility bills?

You don’t need to be a superhero to accomplish these four worthwhile goals. All you have to do is just one little thing:

Turn off the light.

That's right. Just that. And here's what the latest study tells us about how that works.

The Research

A team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to calculate the human lives saved and health benefits achieved by using less electricity. To do this, they focused on energy use during the summer months of June, July, and August (when energy use is high), seeking out the relationship between power plant emissions, air quality, and human deaths.

After crunching the numbers, the researchers discovered that a 12% increase in summertime energy efficiency would save 475 lives each year in the United States by reducing exposure to air pollution, specifically, to ozone (a colorless gas that is the main ingredient in smog) and to fine particulate matter (microscopic particles that penetrate deep into the lungs, a.k.a "soot"). That would be a lot of lives saved just by turning off lights or otherwise increasing energy efficiency for three months!

Besides fewer deaths, reducing air pollution would have a cornucopia of additional health benefits. Previous research by the CDC has documented the harmful effects of ozone and fine particulate matter on lung health. The CDC study shows that when air pollution rises, so do ER visits for serious health problems such as asthma, COPD, pneumonia, and other lung diseases.

Studies have also shown that even short-term exposure to low levels of air pollution are linked to premature deaths among seniors, especially those who are low-income, female, or black, according to a study from the Harvard School of Public Health. Francesca Dominici, the senior author of the study, said, “We found that the mortality rate increases almost linearly as air pollution increases. Any level of air pollution, no matter how low, is harmful to human health.”

But it's not just the old and the sick who are affected by air pollution, and it's not just lung health that is in question. The American Heart Association cites research showing that even low levels of air pollution are linked to enlarged heart chambers, a precursor of heart failure. Numerous studies have found that children and adults who have been exposed to air pollution can suffer from high blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Looking at an even bigger picture, the World Health Organization estimates that indoor pollution (such as from cooking stoves) and outdoor air pollution causes one in nine deaths worldwide, according to Somini Sengupta in this article. One in nine deaths worldwide. It’s hard to grasp that.

Image by whitesession, pixabay/CCO.
"A light-bulb moment"
Source: Image by whitesession, pixabay/CCO.

A Light-Bulb Moment

I am fairly conscientious about turning out lights at home, recognizing that saving energy can save money as well as reduce harmful carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. But until I read the "light-bulb research," I only had a vague idea about the connection between turning off a light and saving someone’s life or health. Now I do! I’ve gone from “conscientious” to “vigilant” about flipping that light switch.

As study author Tracey Holloway recently tweeted, “We too often forget that climate solutions can also be health solutions.” I would add, “And vice versa.” In fact, “climate change” is still just an abstract phrase for many people, but almost all of us can relate to the idea of saving a life by reducing air pollution. In fact, like the old highway safety slogan says, the life you save may be your own.

A Few Easy Steps Forward

If you want to play a role in reducing air pollution, lung diseases, and deaths, you could…

1. Walk through the house every hour or even every half hour, turning off all unneeded appliances and lights (and, incidentally, enjoying the health benefits of “exercise snacks”).

2. Unplug kitchen appliances and chargers when not in use to thwart “energy vampires.”

3. Buy energy-efficient major appliances when your old ones need replacing.

4. Minimize car use, buy a more energy-efficient car, or take public transportation.

5. Replace fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient LED light bulbs.

6. Become an advocate for cleaner and more efficient energy use and vote for people who support that position.

7. Support and donate to the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association, and other advocacy groups for health and cleaner air.

The above are just a few simple ideas among many. But I have to ask…

Are Small Steps Enough?

I am fascinated by the power of small actions that have huge positive consequences. For example, there’s the “latte factor:” Saving $3-5/ day on coffee could build up a nice savings cushion by the end of the year. In the exercise domain, 5 minutes per hour of mild exercise can prevent “sitting diseases,” lift your mood, increase longevity, and reduce the risk of early death. Substituting water for sugar-sweetened beverages like a soda can lead to weight loss and reduced risk of diabetes, obesity, and other diseases.

The benefits of small steps may seem inconsequential at times, but often “small wins” can motivate someone to take a larger step in the right direction. In the case of turning off a light, we can also see the hidden connections between our individual actions and the larger social consequences.

Unfortunately, our individual actions may not be enough unless we also pass and enforce laws that limit emissions and reward energy producers who utilize clean energy. Still, we have to reduce harm and do good where we can. So, why not make a big difference by doing something very small? Turn off that light!

© Meg Selig, 2019. For permissions, click here.

Major Sources:

“Turn off a light, save a life." ScienceDaily.

Abel, D.W., Holloway, T., et al. "Air Quality-Related Health Benefits of Energy Efficiency in the United States." Environmental Science & Technology, 2019; DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b06417

“Air pollution increases ER visits for breathing problems,” ScienceDaily.

“Short-term exposure to low levels of air pollution linked with premature death among U.S. seniors,” Harvard C.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Sengupta, S. “Air pollution is shortening your life. Here’s how much.” New York Times.

Crank, J. “Should you unplug appliances to save electricity?”

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