Power plant pollution blamed for 30,000 premature deaths in the US every year

A new report says that pollution from US power plants is responsible for the early deaths of more than 30,000 Americans annually, and that simply following EPA policy could cut this figure by over 60%.

Death, Disease and Dirty Power: Mortality and Health Damage Due to Air Pollution from Power Plants, the first ever report to quantify deaths and other adverse health effects resulting exclusively from fine particle pollution produced by US coal and oil fired power plants, was released on 17 October. The research for the report was conducted by Abt Associates, a leader in health, frequently employed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess the benefits of its regulatory programmes.

Abt compiled figures of nationwide deaths, hospitalisations, emergency room visits, asthma attacks, and other lesser respiratory symptoms attributable to fine particle pollutants, or soot, from US power plants having an impact in 48 states. The researchers were able to develop health impact estimates for every state and major metropolitan area. Among the key findings of the report are:

  • fine particle pollution from US power plants cuts short the lives of over 30,000 people each year and in more polluted areas, fine particle pollution can shave several years off its victims’ lives;
  • hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer from asthma attacks, cardiac problems and upper and lower respiratory problems associated with fine particles from power plants. The elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease are most severely impacted by fine particle pollution from power plants;
  • metropolitan areas with large populations near coal-fired power plants feel their impacts most acutely – their attributable death rates are much higher than in areas with few or no coal-fired power plants;
  • 18,700 of the deaths due to fine particle pollution from power plants and an estimated 366,000 of 603,000 asthma attacks nationwide could be avoided by implementing EPA policies that cut power plant sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution 75% below 1997 emission levels;
  • power plants outstrip all other polluters as the largest source of sulphates – the major component of fine particle pollution – in the US.

Abt researchers found that the highest per capita death impacts were in coal-reliant states such as Kentucky, where the researchers found that 44.1 people out of every 100,000 die prematurely as a result of power plant pollution, followed by West Virginia and Alabama with 43.3 and 42.8 per 100,000 respectively. Conversely, California, although having some of the US’s worst air quality, ranked almost last in per capita mortality rate from power plants, which Abt researchers concluded was due to having very few coal or oil fired power plants.

According to a report published by the US Public Interest Research Group in April, 594 US power plants are taking advantage of loopholes in the Clean Air Act (see related story). The report ranks the 100 worst plants, the 12 worst companies and each state based on total emissions. The oldest and dirtiest coal-burning power plants are permitted to emit as much as 10 times more nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide than modern coal plants.

Citing EPA studies, Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force, one of several environmental groups to commission the Abt report, estimated that it would cost the 594 power plants $11.5 billion per year to reduce their emissions to a level where 18,700 lives would be prolonged to their natural span, which would also save $100 billion in social costs.

The EPA issued a stricter ambient air quality standard for fine particle pollution in 1997 which would reduce sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions by 75% from 1997 levels, also significantly reducing mercury and carbon dioxide emissions. However, the EPA’s standard has been challenged in court by power generators who disputed the EPA’s research. These claims were later found to be unfounded, and on 7 November the US Supreme Court will hear a case defining the EPA’s authority to set emissions standards for polluting industries.

“More people die as a result of the pollution from these plants every year than from drunk driving or homicides, societal woes that everyone agrees are top priorities,” Schneider commented on the reports findings, adding that about 16,000 Americans die every year as a result of drunk driving, whilst around 18,000 are murdered.

“We’ve known for decades that air pollution causes death and disease, but this study shows for the first time the death and disease that is attributable to the power sector alone,” said Angela Ledford, campaign manager of Clear the Air, a national clean air campaign, which also commissioned the Abt report. “The staggering rate of death and disease due to power plant pollution cries out for federal action.”

Also involved in the report’s commissioning were the National Environmental Trust, the US Public Interest Research Group and the National Campaign Against Dirty Power.

In 1998 coal-fired capacity represented 40% of the US’s electric generating capacity in 1998, by far the largest sector, followed by gas with 21% of capacity.

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