Coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, has been found to be even more harmful to human health than previously thought in a new report. The report links coal pollution to double the mortality risk compared to fine airborne particles from other sources.
The study was published in the journal Science and found that coal emissions were associated with 460,000 deaths among Medicare recipients aged 65 and older between 1999 and 2020.
However, the study also found that the closure of coal plants in the United States and the installation of scrubbers in the smokestacks to “clean” coal exhaust has had positive effects. Deaths attributable to coal plant emissions among Medicare recipients dropped by over 95 percent during the same period.
Lead author, Lucas Henneman, said, “Things were bad, it was terrible. We made progress, and that’s really good.”
Researchers from six universities collected emissions data from 480 coal power plants between 1999 and 2020. The study used atmospheric modeling to track how sulfur dioxide converted into particulate matter and where it was carried by wind, and then examined millions of Medicare patient deaths by ZIP code.
Areas with more airborne coal particulates were found to have higher death rates according to the statistical model, though the researchers could not identify exact causes of death.
The researchers found that coal exhaust was associated with more than double the mortality risk compared with inhaling fine particles from other sources.
They also published an online tool showing deaths attributed to individual coal-fired power plants.
Dr. Henneman said, “We can’t say how long these people would’ve lived without exposure, but we are saying they died earlier than they otherwise would have because of this coal pollution.”
Requirements that coal-fired power plants “scrub” the pollutants they emit, by removing sulfur dioxide using a cloud of water droplets, proved a game changer for public health.
Coal use is declining in the United States, but is increasing worldwide. It is projected to peak in 2025, at which point renewable energy sources are forecast to become the largest source of electricity production.
The new study in Science adds to mounting evidence of the health benefits that come from moving away from the burning of fossil fuels, especially for vulnerable populations.
In California, the addition of 20 zero emission vehicles for every 1,000 people in a given ZIP code correlated to a 3.2 percent drop in the rate of asthma-related emergency room visits, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
In Chicago, the closure of three coal-fired plants was followed by a 12 percent decrease in asthma-related emergency room visits for children aged 4 and under living in the area relative to rates in places farther away, according to research published in 2021 in the American Journal of Public Health.
In May, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules that would cap the amount of pollutants that power plants could pump out, and estimated there’d be up to $85 billion in climate and health benefits. But given how deadly coal particulates have been found to be, Dr. Hennemen said the benefits would likely be far greater.