Scientists Discover Pollution from Coal Plants More Harmful Than Initially Thought

A new study has found that particles in air from coal power plants are harmful to human health, as they heighten the risk of premature deaths. The research is based on a landmark study from the 1990s, which linked airborne particles to a heightened risk of early death.

The particles, called PM2.5, are tiny enough to be inhaled deep into an individual’s lungs. They are released when coal, which is made up of carbon, sulfur, hydrogen and sometimes metals, is burned. In addition to being released in coal emissions, these particles can also come from smoke emitted by wood fires and gasoline combustion that comes from cars.

For their study, the researchers tracked sulfur dioxide emissions from the largest coal power plants in America. They focused on sulfur dioxide due to its effects on human health and significant reductions in emissions in the period between 1999 to 2020.

Once this was done, they linked the emissions of every plant with death records of Americans aged 65 years of age and older using a statistical model. The researchers controlled for other sources of pollution in their model and considered other risk factors, including level of income, smoking status and local meteorology. They then compared results from their model with prior findings that tested the effect of PM2.5 on human health, determining that PM2.5 from coal was two times more harmful than particles from other sources.

In their report, the researchers stated that their findings suggest that air pollutants released by these plants were linked to almost 500,000 premature deaths of elderly individuals in the study period. The researchers also found that, in 1999, the death of 55,000 individuals could be ascribed to air pollution from coal plants. By 2020, this number had significantly reduced, totaling an estimated 1,600.

Researchers attribute this drop to federal regulations that make it compulsory for all coal plant operators to install emissions scrubbers, with some plants being shut down completely. They also noted that the number of deaths linked to individual coal power plants depended on factors such as how many individuals breathed in the pollutants, volume of emissions a particular plant emitted and even the way the wind blew, arguing that upwind locations of plants intensified their impact.

This study comes at a time when coal for electricity generation is being replaced by renewable energy and natural gas. Despite the ongoing transition to clean energy, however, projections show that the use of coal globally will increase in the future.

The study’s findings were reported in the “Science” journal.

Such studies highlighting the harms that coal power plants cause to inhabitants of the surrounding areas increase pressure on entities such as Peabody Energy Corporation (NYSE: BTU) to find ways to limit the harms from coal emissions or pivot to other business lines.

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