Coal-fired power is an unhealthy energy choice for Maryland
Coal-fired power plants are one of the largest sources of air pollution in Maryland. The pollution from these plants damages our cardiovascular and respiratory health and threatens healthy development of our children. Maryland's coal-fired power plants produce toxic pollution, nitrogen oxide compounds, sulfur dioxides, fine particulate matter, and carbon dioxide, all of which cause significant health problems in Maryland, particularly in the most vulnerable populations. Maryland residents bear the true cost of coal in negative health outcomes and economic harm.
Coal-fired power harms human health
Burning coal for electricity releases 84 of the 187 hazardous compounds that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified as toxic for humans and the environment. These hazardous compounds include neurotoxins such as mercury and lead, corrosive substances such as hydrochloric acid, carcinogens such as arsenic and benzene, radioactive elements such as radium, and potent organic carbon-based toxins such as dioxins and formaldehyde.(1)
Nitrogen oxide compounds and sulfur dioxides
Burning coal releases large quantities of nitrogen oxide compounds (NOx) and sulfur dioxides (SO2).
Exposures ranging from 30 minutes to 24 hours to NO2 (nitrogen dioxide, a NOx compound) reduce pulmonary function, increase respiratory infections and increase sensitivity to compounds that constrict air passages, worsening asthma.(2)
NOx is a primary cause of ground-level ozone. Long-term ozone exposure is associated with significant increases in respiratory disease, hospital admissions and premature death.(2)
SO2 emissions particularly impact adults with asthma, adults who exercise, and those exposed to peak levels of the pollutant for 5-10 minutes. Short-term exposures can result in the narrowing of airways and enhanced asthma symptoms[LS: okay to say "...airways and asthma exacerbations"? (good keyword).] Children and older persons are also particularly susceptible to SO2 emissions.(3)
Fine particulate matter
Coal-fired power plants are also a major source of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), the leading cause of death from air pollution. NOx and SO2 react with other pollutants in the atmosphere to create fine particulate matter. Hazardous air pollutants such as arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium lead, manganese, nickel and other metals are emitted as fine particulate matter directly from coal-fired power plants. PM 2.5 increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer. Smaller than 1/20 the with of a human hair, fine particulate matter is carried deep into the lungs, where they can cross into the bloodstream and eventually settle in the body and cause harm.(4)
Coal-fired power plants are also one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases. Electricity produced from coal accounts for about 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption in Maryland.(5)
The hidden costs of coal pollution
Coal kills - and costs
According to a New York Academy of Sciences study, particulates and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur from coal-fired power plants kill more than 24,000 annually [LS: nationwide?], including 2,800 from lung cancer, and result in 28,300 non-fatal heart attacks annually. The study further estimates that the economic impacts of air pollution from coal are between $65.1 and 187.5 billion annually.(6)
Premature deaths in Maryland
While no data is available on the number of deaths caused by coal-fired power plants in Maryland, a study published in 2013, using data from 2005, found that Baltimore has the highest mortality rate from air pollution of all cities in the country. The study found that 130 out of every 100,000 residents were likely to die prematurely each year of causes related to air pollution, more than in New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.(7)
Maryland receives failing grades in ozone
In its 2015 State of the Air report, the American Lung Association graded 15 of Maryland's 24 counties on their level of ozone pollution relative to EPA standards. No county received an A or B. One received a C and three counties received Ds. Eleven counties received an F.(8)
Who suffers the most?
Pollutants such as mercury, SO2 and NO2 come to ground level very quickly. Because of this, people living near power plants have been found to suffer 2-5 times the health impacts of people living farther away.(9)
Among Maryland residents, residents of Baltimore City, which has three coal-fired power plants nearby, are at the highest risk for air pollution-related disease and premature mortality. Maryland asthma data from 2010 show that the black population suffers disproportionately, with five times as many visits to emergency rooms, three times more hospitalizations and two and a half time more premature deaths than seen in the white population.(10)
What is the solution?
Coal operations Impose the true costs of coal on plant operators. The state should require that all coal plants install and use the most advanced pollution-cutting technology available.
Energy efficiency Maryland's PSC is ordering electric utilities to achieve annual energy savings of two percent of retail sales per year, and that natural gas companies also adopt reduction goals. Less energy used means less pollution from plants.
Wind, solar and geothermal Support policy to increase the use of wind, solar and geothermal, clean and renewable energy sources.
Personal effort Policies alone won't solve the problem. Work to reduce your own energy consumption and switch to renewable energy for your home and business.
Maryland: a long way to go
In 2013, coal accounted for 44 percent of the state's energy production, while solar and wind together accounted for only one percent.
Coal pollution: a homegrown problem
- National Institutes of Health. Coal-Fired Power Plants. Retrieved from http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/locations.php?id=155.
- USEPA, Nitrogen Dioxides: Health. Retrieved from www.epa.gov/oaqps001/nitrogenoxides/health.html.
- USEPA, Sulfur Dioxides: Health. Retrieved from www.epa.gov/airquality/sulfurdioxide/health.html.
- USEPA, Particulate Matter: Health. Retrieved from www.epa.gov/airquality/particlepollution/health.html.
- MDE, Maryland’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act Plan (October 2013), Figure 3-4, Page 26. Retrieved from
- Paul Espstein, et. al., Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, Annuals of the New York Academy of
Sciences, February 2011, Volume 1218, Pages 73-98. Retrieved from
- Fabio Caiazzo, et. al., Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of
major sectors in 2005, Atmospheric Environment, November 2013, Volume 79, Pages 198-208.
Retrieved from www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1352231013004548.
- American Lung Association. State of the Air, 2015. Retrieved from www.stateoftheair.org.
- Levy JI and JD. Spengler 2002. Modeling the benefits of power plant emission controls in Massachusetts. J. Air &
Waste Manage. Assoc. 52:5-18.
- MDHMH, Asthma in Maryland 2011. Retrieved from