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Study Shows Coal Kills People. Imagine That!

Over the past decade, hundreds of coal-fired generating plants have been shut down all across America, many of them replaced by facilities that burn natural gas instead. A new study explores the relationship between coal plant emissions and human mortality both nearby and downstream from those facilities.

Over the past decade, hundreds of coal-fired generating plants have been shut down all across America, many of them replaced by facilities that burn natural gas instead. A new study by Jennifer Burney of the University of California and published in the journal Nature Sustainability explores the relationship between coal plant emissions and human mortality both nearby and downstream from those facilities.

pollution from coal plants

Charts on left reflect data from 2008. Those on right reflect data from 2018. Image credit: Jennifer Burney/Nature Sustainability

As summarized by The Guardian, the study concludes that the closure of coal-fired generating plants over the past 10 years has kept 300 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. More importantly from a health point of view, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions from those plants were reduced by 60% and 80%, respectively. Those pollutants are linked to increased rates of cardiovascular and pulmonary disease.

As a result, 26,610 American lives were saved over the past decade by taking those coal-powered facilities offline, according to the research. “When you turn coal units off you see deaths go down. It’s something we can see in a tangible way,” Burney tells The Guardian. “There is a cost to coal beyond the economics. We have to think carefully about where plants are sited, as well as how to reduce their pollutants.”

Her study shows that emissions from coal plants not only affect human health, they can lead to decreases in the yield of crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. In other words, emissions from coal-fired plants are bad for all living things, which seems rather a high price to pay to secure the blessings of electricity, especially when there are cost competitive alternatives available that have no harmful emissions at all.

Rob Jackson, a climate and environment expert at Stanford University who was not involved in the study, tells The Guardian, “Particulate pollution from coal still kills thousands of Americans yearly and hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Rolling back emissions standards won’t just harm the climate, it will kill people, especially poorer people more likely to live near coal-fired power plants.” Study after study have shown that communities of color are disproportionately affected by pollution from the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries.

Burning natural gas does not create the amount of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions that burning coal does, but it has extra environmental hazards of its own, especially because millions of cubic feet of it are released into the atmosphere each year from fracking and transportation activities. Methane, the major component of natural gas, is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It may not kill people directly, but it endangers us all by helping to raise average global temperatures.

If you want to dig into the research further, please read the full report in Nature Sustainability. But the takeaway from the study is summarized by Thomas Burke, a former Environmental Protection Agency official responsible for implementing the Clean Air Act. He tells The Guardian the study “provides a new lens for viewing the broad impacts of coal on our health, agriculture and climate. Clearly the policies of the current EPA leadership, to turn back the clock and support the coal industry, have broad ranging negative impacts on public health and our environment.”

Please keep in that in mind when you step into the voting booth next November.

 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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