Coal-fired Power Plants Caused 460,000 Deaths in the US in the Past 20 Years

New research reveals that coal-fired power plants in the US have caused twice as many premature deaths as previously estimated, with at least 460,000 American lives lost over the past two decades.


Coal-fired Power Plants and Premature Deaths

Recent research shows that coal-fired power plants in the US have had a much more devastating impact on public health than previously believed. Over the past two decades, these power plants have caused at least 460,000 premature deaths, doubling the previous estimates. The pollutants emitted by these plants, called fine particulate matter or PM2.5, have been linked to numerous life-threatening medical conditions including asthma, heart disease, low birth weight, and certain cancers.

The study, which analyzed Medicare and emissions data from 1999 to 2020, found that coal PM2.5 is twice as deadly as fine particle pollutants from other sources. Previous studies had assumed that all sources of PM2.5 posed a similar risk, leading to an underestimation of the dangers of coal-fired power plants. The research also highlighted the role of government regulations in saving lives, as most deaths occurred during periods of weak environmental standards and high PM2.5 levels from coal plants.

Implications for Policymakers and Environmental Protection

The lead author of the study, Lucas Henneman, emphasized the importance of this evidence for policymakers and regulatory agencies like the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The findings provide valuable insights for identifying cost-effective solutions to clean up the country's air, such as implementing emissions controls or promoting renewable energy sources. Henneman, an assistant professor at George Mason University, stated that air pollution from coal has been underestimated and treated as just another pollutant, highlighting the need for proper recognition and action to address its harmful effects.

The research team tracked air pollution and its health effects from 480 coal power plants in the US using publicly available data. They connected annual exposure levels with more than 650 million Medicare health records, covering a majority of individuals over the age of 65 in the country. The study revealed that coal plants located east of the Mississippi River, particularly in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, had the highest number of associated deaths. However, every region had at least one plant linked to 600 deaths, and some plants were responsible for over 5,000 deaths throughout the study period.

Decline of Coal Use and Global Implications

Although coal use has decreased in the US, there are still more than 200 operational coal-fired power plants, accounting for 20% of electricity generation in 2022. The states with the highest number of operational plants are Indiana, Kentucky, and Texas. Internationally, coal-generated power is still on the rise in countries like South Africa, China, India, and Poland.

The study's co-author, Francesca Dominici from the Harvard TC Chan School of Public Health, emphasized the relevance of these findings for policymakers and regulators worldwide. As countries grapple with their energy sources and consider the environmental and health costs of coal, this research provides crucial insights. Cheap energy needs to be balanced with the significant impacts on the environment and public health caused by coal-fired power plants.