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Air Quality

Published on April 11th, 2015 | by James Ayre


Heavy Public Health Burden Of Coal Energy

April 11th, 2015 by  

Some of the public health burden associated with the coal industry and coal-fired power plants recently had some new light shed on it, via a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The new study found that long-term improvements in air quality were strongly associated with better respiratory function amongst children during their critical growth years. This new work (you can find it here) examined lung development in adolescents aged 11–15 in Southern California, over the course of the last 20 years — during a period of time when implemented air pollution controls greatly improved the air quality of the region.

Credit: RevolTee, Flickr

This new work represents the very first time that researchers have definitively shown that better air quality leads directly to improved lung development in adolescents.

To provide some specifics here, the new study measured lung development in many thousands of children in communities all across the Los Angeles region staring back in 1993. The findings are pretty clear — large gains were observed in the children studied from 2007 to 2011, as compared against the children studied in the same communities during 1994–98 and 1997–2001. These gains were clear even after adjusting for “age, gender, ethnicity, height, respiratory illness, and other variations.”

“We saw pretty substantial improvements in lung function development in our most recent cohort of children,” stated lead author W James Gauderman, a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “It’s strange to be reporting positive numbers instead of negative numbers after 20 years.”


Climate Progress provides a bit more:

Gauderman is used to reporting negative numbers. Previously reported results from his data had provided evidence for the harmful impacts associated with lung development for children in areas with heavy air pollution, as well as showing that children living near busy roads have a higher risk of developing asthma.

Now, the long-term data is showing positive impacts as air quality improved. Specifically, the combined exposure of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter of diameter under 2.5 microns (PM2.5) fell approximately 40% over the course of the study. As pollutants dropped, lung growth improved more than 10%, according to the long-term data. The percentage of children in the study with abnormally low lung function at age 15 dropped from nearly 8% for the 1994-98 cohort to 6.3% in 1997-2001 and to just 3.6% for children followed between 2007 and 2011.

“It certainly supports the efforts that have been made over 40 years to improve air quality,” Gauderman noted. “We would expect improvements in other urban centers to produce similar improvements in children’s health.”

This new work follows on much earlier research revealing some of the hidden costs of coal energy. In particular, research done back in 2011 by the director of Harvard Medical School comes to mind — work that found that the United States’ reliance on coal energy (roughly half of all electricity in the country is via coal-fired power plants) results in roughly $345 billion to $500 billion in ‘hidden’ costs a year.

Amongst these costs are the significant health costs that result from the pollution released by power plants, and the ubiquitous health issues of coal mining communities. The study found that, if these costs were factored into the cost of electricity generated by coal-fired power plants, the price of said electricity would triple.

“This is not borne by the coal industry, this is borne by us, in our taxes,” noted Paul Epstein, the study’s lead author, director of the Harvard Medical School at the time (he is since deceased), and the associate director of its Center for Health and the Global Environment at the time. “The public cost is far greater than the cost of the coal itself. The impacts of this industry go way beyond just lighting our lights.”

According to this research, if all of the ancillary costs associated with coal energy were added, the price of electricity from coal-fired power plants would rise by about 18 cents per kilowatt hour (well, the range determined by the study was between 9 cents and 27 cents per kilowatt hour) — effectively making it one of the more expensive forms of electrify generation out there, rather than one of the cheapest (which it “is” currently).

If you’re in the mood to be amused, here’s a response to this old study from a spokeswoman for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity by the name of Lisa Camooso Miller (released at the time of the study’s publication): “The Epstein article ignores the substantial benefits of coal in maintaining lower energy prices for American families and businesses. Lower energy prices are linked to a higher standard of living and better health.”

… 🙂 Hmm…..

As noted at the time by a research director with the environmental activist group Greenpeace Kert Davies: “This is effectively a subsidy borne by asthmatic children and rain-polluted lakes and the climate is another way of looking at it. It’s a tax by the industry on us that we are not seeing in our bills but we are bearing the costs.”

Exactly. The hidden costs of coal energy certainly do end up being paid for — just not by the coal industry. The costs are paid for by the citizens afflicted with diseases caused by coal pollution, the government that has to foot the bill for some citizens, and the wider environment.

Image Credit: Emissions via Flickr CC

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About the Author

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

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