Environment Health Uncategorized

Coal Power Plants Cause of 460,000 Deaths In the U.S. In Past Two Decades

HARVARD T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Exposure to fine particulate air pollutants from coal-fired power plants (coal PM2.5) is associated with a risk of mortality more than double that of exposure to PM2.5 from other sources, according to a new study led by George Mason University, The University of Texas at Austin, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Examining Medicare and emissions data in the U.S. from 1999 to 2020, the researchers also found that 460,000 deaths were attributable to coal PM2.5 during the study period—most of them occurring between 1999 and 2007, when coal PM2.5 levels were highest.

The study was published on November 23, 2023, in Science.

While previous studies have quantified the mortality burden from coal-fired power plants, much of this research has assumed that coal PM2.5 has the same toxicity as PM2.5 from other sources.

“PM2.5 from coal has been treated as if it’s just another air pollutant. But it’s much more harmful than we thought, and its mortality burden has been seriously underestimated,” said lead author Lucas Henneman, assistant professor in the Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering at Mason. “These findings can help policymakers and regulators identify cost-effective solutions for cleaning up the country’s air, for example, by requiring emissions controls or encouraging utilities to use other energy sources, like renewables.”

Using emissions data from 480 coal power plants in the U.S. between 1999 and 2020, the researchers modeled where wind carried coal sulfur dioxide throughout the week after it was emitted and how atmospheric processes converted the sulfur dioxide into PM2.5. This model produced annual coal PM2.5 exposure fields for each power plant. They then examined individual-level Medicare records from 1999 to 2016, representing the health statuses of Americans ages 65 and older and representing a total of more than 650 million person-years. By linking the exposure fields to the Medicare records, inclusive of where enrollees lived and when they died, the researchers were able to understand individuals’ exposure to coal PM2.5 and calculate the impact it had on their health.

They found that across the U.S. in 1999, the average level of coal PM2.5 was 2.34 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3). This level decreased significantly by 2020, to 0.07 μg/m3. The researchers calculated that a one μg/m3 increase in annual average coal PM2.5 was associated with a 1.12% increase in all-cause mortality, a risk 2.1 times greater than that of PM2.5 from any other source. They also found that 460,000 deaths were attributable to coal PM2.5, representing 25% of all PM2.5-related deaths among Medicare enrollees before 2009.

The researchers were also able to quantify deaths attributable to specific power plants, producing a ranking of the coal-fired power plants studied based on their contribution to coal PM2.5’s mortality burden. They found that 10 of these plants each contributed at least 5,000 deaths during the study period. They visualized the deaths from each power plant in a publicly available online tool


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