Study Exposes Coal’s Deadly Toll: 460K Deaths Revealed

A study led by George Mason University, The University of Texas at Austin, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health uncovers the severe health hazards associated with exposure to fine particulate air pollutants (PM2.5) from coal-fired power plants. The research, examining U.S. Medicare and emissions data from 1999 to 2020, reveals a mortality risk over two times higher for coal PM2.5 compared to other sources.

Lead author Lucas Henneman emphasizes that while previous estimations considered coal PM2.5 as another typical air pollutant, its actual toxicity exceeds assumptions, severely impacting public health. These findings urge policymakers to explore effective measures, like stringent emissions control or transitioning to renewable energy sources.

The study, to be published on November 23, 2023, in Science, analyzed emissions data from 480 U.S. coal power plants and linked them with individual-level Medicare records of individuals aged 65 and above. By connecting exposure to coal PM2.5 with health data, researchers discovered alarming mortality figures attributable to coal-fired PM2.5.

Results demonstrated that in 1999, the average level of coal PM2.5 stood at 2.34 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), significantly decreasing to 0.07 μg/m3 by 2020. Shockingly, a one μg/m3 increase in annual average coal PM2.5 correlated with a 1.12% rise in all-cause mortality, reflecting a 2.1 times higher risk than other PM2.5 sources. A staggering 460,000 deaths were linked to coal PM2.5, constituting a quarter of PM2.5-related deaths among Medicare enrollees before 2009.

Moreover, the study identified specific coal-fired power plants accountable for mortality, highlighting ten plants contributing over 5,000 deaths each during the study period. The team made these findings publicly accessible through an online tool for greater transparency and awareness.

Notably, the years between 1999 and 2007 marked the majority of these deaths, with over 43,000 deaths annually. However, this alarming toll reduced significantly by 2020, showing a remarkable 95% decline as coal plants implemented stringent regulations or ceased operations.

Senior author Corwin Zigler considers this decline a success story, emphasizing the substantial reduction in coal pollution due to impactful U.S. policies. However, the study’s relevance persists, given coal’s presence in some U.S. states’ energy portfolios and projected global coal use for electricity generation. The researchers stress the urgent need for cleaner energy alternatives, balancing energy needs with environmental and health concerns.

The study’s funding, sourced from various institutes and foundations, underlines its significance in steering energy policies towards cleaner and safer alternatives.

Reference: “Mortality risk from United States coal electricity generation,” Lucas Henneman, Christine Choirat, Irene Dedoussi, Francesca Dominici, Jessica Roberts, Corwin Zigler, Science, online November 23, 2023, doi: 10.1126/science.adf4915.

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