US — A new scientific review documenting the evidence of the health impacts from coal use in energy generation has been released by researchers from the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
The pollutants generated from coal combustion have profound effects on the health of local communities but can also travel long distances, affecting communities remote from power plants, according to the review. Lead author Dr. Susan Buchanan, MD, MPH, Associate Professor and Director, University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System's Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, said the review findings demonstrated it was vital that energy policy decisions took into account the harm caused to human health from fossil fuels and from coal in particular.
“Every step of the lifecycle of coal generates pollution that is harmful to human health,” Dr Buchanan said, “but the bulk of the health burden is associated with pollutants from combustion for electricity.”
The review estimated that based on methodologies used in Europe, the worldwide toll from air pollution due to coal combustion would be 210,000 deaths each year, and caused almost two million serious illnesses, and 151 million minor illnesses. The figures are also considered an underestimate, since pollution from coal power plants is not as regulated in other parts of the world. For instance, extrapolating from a study in China, the review included estimates of 250,000 deaths each year in China alone.
None of these figures include the health burden from climate change, to which coal is a significant contributor. Harmful air pollutants from coal combustion documented in the review include particulate matter (PM), sulfur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NO2), ozone, and heavy metals which can cause respiratory (lung) disease, cardiovascular (heart) disease, and affect reproductive and neurological health and reduce life expectancy.
Accounting for the monetary value of the health costs of coal would add between18-45 cents per Kwh of electricity used, and would triple its costs to consumers, the review found. However the savings from reducing air pollution from coal would substantially reduce health care costs, with a ratio of savings to costs of 25:1 calculated in relation to reducing air pollution under the US Clean Air Act.
This scientific literature review is a new initiative of the Health Care Research Collaborative based at UIC and carried out in conjunction with Health Care Without Harm, and is part of a project to evaluate the health impacts and healthcare costs of energy generation choices across a number of countries.