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Coal power plant pollution linked to almost half a million US deaths


Coal power plants emit sulphur dioxide gas, which reacts with other chemicals in the atmosphere to form harmful fine particles

Aerial Archives / Alamy

Fine particle air pollution from coal power plants caused the deaths of 460,000 people aged over 65 in the US between 1999 and 2020, according to a new analysis, far more than previously thought.

While harsher regulation and the replacement of coal by natural gas have now eliminated 97 per cent of that pollution, at least 1600 US residents still die as a result of coal emissions each year, the study found.

Burning coal for electricity emits toxic sulphur dioxide gas, which reacts with elements in the atmosphere to form harmful fine particles that people can breathe in hundreds of miles away. Exposure to air pollution particles can cause heart disease, lung conditions and cancer.

Lucas Henneman at George Mason University in Virginia and his colleagues compared levels of such fine particle coal pollution in different ZIP postal codes with excess deaths of Medicare insurance participants, who are mostly aged 65 and over, in those areas. It found that this pollution was more than twice as deadly as previously estimated.

“There are a lot of marks against coal,” says Henneman. “It’s really bad for climate. It’s bad for the environment when you extract it. And when we burn it, it’s bad for our health.”

The tightening of emissions standards has gradually compelled most coal power plants to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by installing scrubbers that capture a lot of it in their smokestacks. Fine particle coal pollution declined drastically between 1999 and 2020 partly because of that, but plants like WA Parish in Texas and Labadie in Missouri continue to burn coal without scrubbers.

For the first time, the study estimated how many deaths were due to individual power plants, as shown on an online map.

“I’d imagine that’s really useful for a regulator because now there can be much, much more targeted controls put on these particular sources to further improve air quality,” says Eloise Marais at University College London.

More research is needed into health impacts in other countries, says Henneman, as coal power emissions continue to rise globally.

Topics:

  • fossil fuels/
  • air pollution



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