Coal-fired power plants, pollution and death

Pollution from coal-fired power plants is causing more deaths than previously thought.

New research shows that air pollution particles from coal-fired power plants are more harmful to human health than many experts thought and are more than twice as likely to cause premature deaths as air pollution particles from other sources.

In a study published in the journal Science, my colleagues and I determined how particles emitted from coal-fired power plants in the United States move through the atmosphere and then linked each plant’s emissions to Medicare mortality data for Americans over age 65 .

Coal-fired power plants and their damage to health

Our results show that air pollution from coal-fired power plants was associated with nearly half a million premature deaths among older Americans between 1999 and 2020.

It’s an alarming number, but the study also offers good news: The number of annual deaths linked to coal-fired power plants in the United States has declined since the mid-2000s, when federal regulations forced operators to install exhaust scrubbers. Many utilities have completely phased out coal-fired power plants switched off.

We estimate that carbon pollution caused 55,000 deaths in the United States in 1999. By 2020, that number had dropped to 1,600.

energy transition

In the United States, coal is being replaced by natural gas and renewable energy sources for electricity generation. However, global coal consumption is expected to increase in the coming years. This makes our results even more relevant for better understanding for policymakers around the world when developing future policies.

Carbon air pollution: why is it so bad?

A groundbreaking study conducted in the 1990s, known as the Harvard Six Cities Study, linked fine particulate matter in the air, known as PM2.5, to an increased risk of premature death. Since then, other studies have linked PM2.5 to lung and heart disease, cancer, dementia and other illnesses.

Following this investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency began regulating PM2.5 levels in 1997, lowering limits over time.

PM2.5 (particles small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs) comes from a variety of sources, including gasoline burned in vehicles and smoke from wildfires and power plants.

Coal is also a mixture of many chemicals: carbon, hydrogen, sulfur and even metals. When coal is burned, all of these chemicals are released into the atmosphere in the form of gases or particles. There they are transported by the wind and interact with other chemicals present in the atmosphere.

As a result, anyone downwind near a coal-fired power plant could be breathing in a complex cocktail of chemicals, each with potential health effects.

Monitor PM2.5 carbon dioxide emissions

To understand the risk that carbon emissions pose to human health, we tracked the sulfur dioxide emissions from each of the 480 largest coal-fired power plants in the United States, operating continuously since 1999, traveling with the wind and becoming fine particles: carbon PM2, 5.

We used sulfur dioxide because of its known health effects and emissions were significantly reduced during the study period.

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We then used a statistical model to link PM2.5 carbon pollution to Medicare data for nearly 70 million people between 1999 and 2020. This model allowed us to estimate deaths associated with PM2.5 dust from coal.

We included other sources of pollution in our statistical model and took into account many other known risk factors such as smoking, local climate and income level. We tried several statistical methods and all produced consistent results.

We compared the results of the statistical model with previous results examining the health effects of PM2.5 from other sources and found that PM2.5 from coal is twice as harmful as PM2.5 from all other sources.

The number of deaths associated with each power plant depends on many factors: the amount of coal released into the atmosphere, the direction of the wind, and the number of people breathing the pollutants. Unfortunately, American utilities have located many of their facilities downwind of major population centers on the East Coast. This arrangement increased the influence of these plants.

An interactive online tool allows users to see our estimate of the number of annual deaths at every power plant in the United States. Also note that these numbers have declined over time for most coal-fired power plants.

The American success story and the global future of coal

For several years, engineers have been developing effective scrubbers and other pollution control devices that can reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The Environmental Protection Agency has regulations that specifically reward coal companies for installing scrubbers, and most companies that don’t have them installed close their doors.

The results were surprising: in factories with scrubbers installed, sulfur dioxide emissions were reduced by about 90%. Nationwide, sulfur dioxide emissions have fallen by 95% since 1999. We expect that the number of deaths has decreased significantly with each facility where scrubbers have been installed or closed.

As advances in fracking technology lowered the cost of natural gas and regulations made coal-fired power plants more expensive to operate, utilities began replacing coal with natural gas, natural resources, and renewable energy plants.

Switching to natural gas — a fossil fuel that is cleaner than coal but is still a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change — has helped reduce air pollution even further.

Today, coal supplies about 27% of U.S. electricity, up from 56% in 1999. However, the global outlook for coal is mixed. As the United States and other countries look toward a future with less coal use, the International Energy Agency expects global coal consumption to rise at least through 2025.

Our and similar studies clearly show that the increased use of coal is harming human health and the climate.
Making the most of emissions controls and switching to renewable energy sources are sure ways to reduce the negative impacts of coal.

With information from: Lucas Henneman, assistant professor of engineering at George Mason University. The conversation.

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