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A recent study reveals that pollution originating from coal power plants is responsible for a significantly higher number of deaths than previously recognized by scientists.

New research reveals that particulate air pollution originating from coal-fired power plants poses a more significant threat to human health than previously recognized, being over twice as likely to contribute to premature deaths compared to particles from alternative sources. Published in the journal Science, our study involved mapping the trajectory of emissions from U.S. coal power plants in the atmosphere and correlating each plant’s emissions with the mortality records of Americans aged 65 and older on Medicare.

Our findings indicate that airborne pollutants released by coal power plants were linked to nearly half a million premature deaths among elderly Americans from 1999 to 2020. While this number is alarming, there is positive news: annual deaths associated with U.S. coal power plants have markedly decreased since the mid-2000s, driven by federal regulations compelling operators to install emissions scrubbers and the closure of numerous coal plants.

According to our research, in 1999, approximately 55,000 deaths in the U.S. were attributed to coal air pollution, but by 2020, this figure had plummeted to 1,600. In the U.S., the shift from coal to natural gas and renewable energy for electricity generation is underway, reducing coal’s share from 56% in 1999 to around 27%. However, on a global scale, coal usage is expected to rise in the coming years, emphasizing the urgency for global decision-makers to comprehend our results as they formulate future policies.

The detrimental nature of coal air pollution is highlighted by a landmark study in the 1990s, known as the Harvard Six Cities Study, which linked minuscule airborne particles referred to as PM2.5 to an elevated risk of premature death. Subsequent studies have further connected PM2.5 to various health issues, including lung and heart disease, cancer, and dementia.

Following that research, the Environmental Protection Agency initiated the regulation of PM2.5 concentrations in 1997, progressively lowering the acceptable limit over time. PM2.5, comprising particles small enough to penetrate deep into our lungs, originates from diverse sources, including vehicle gasoline combustion, wood fires, and power plants, and is composed of various chemicals.

Coal, a complex mixture of chemicals such as carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, and metals, releases these components into the atmosphere as gases or particles when burned. Once emitted, these chemicals interact with existing atmospheric compounds and are transported by the wind. Consequently, individuals located downwind of a coal plant may inhale a multifaceted blend of chemicals, each carrying its own potential health effects.

To comprehend the health risks posed by coal emissions, we traced the movement of sulfur dioxide emissions from each of the 480 largest U.S. coal power plants operating since 1999. Utilizing sulfur dioxide due to its recognized health effects and substantial emission reductions during the study period, we employed a statistical model to link coal PM2.5 exposure to Medicare records covering nearly 70 million people from 1999 to 2020.

Our statistical model considered various factors, including other pollution sources, smoking status, local meteorology, and income level, employing multiple approaches that consistently yielded results. Comparative analysis with previous findings on the health impacts of PM2.5 from various sources indicated that PM2.5 from coal is twice as harmful as that from other sources.

The number of deaths linked to individual power plants depended on several factors, including emission levels, wind direction, and the population exposed to pollution. Unfortunately, many U.S. utilities situated their plants upwind of major East Coast population centers, exacerbating the plants’ impacts.

Our interactive online tool allows users to access estimates of annual deaths associated with each U.S. power plant and observe how these numbers have declined over time, particularly at most U.S. coal plants.

A success story in the U.S. involves engineers designing effective scrubbers and pollution-control devices to reduce coal-fired power plant emissions. EPA rules incentivize coal utilities to install these devices, leading to substantial decreases in sulfur dioxide emissions—about 90% in facilities with scrubbers. Nationwide, sulfur dioxide emissions have decreased by 95% since 1999, resulting in a significant decline in deaths attributable to facilities with scrubbers or those that shut down.

As the cost of natural gas decreased with advancements in fracking techniques and regulations increased coal plant operational costs, utilities shifted towards natural gas and renewable energy, further reducing air pollution. Presently, coal contributes around 27% of U.S. electricity, down from 56% in 1999.

Globally, the coal outlook is mixed, with the U.S. and other nations moving toward substantially less coal. However, the International Energy Agency predicts an increase in global coal use until at least 2025. Our study and similar research emphasize the detrimental impact of rising coal use on human health and the climate, underscoring the necessity for robust emissions controls and a transition to renewable energy sources.

 

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