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.
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.
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.
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. Children and older persons are also particularly susceptible to SO2 emissions.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Among Maryland residents, residents of Baltimore, 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.
Coal operations Impose the true costs of coal on plant operators. Maryland and Virginia should require that all coal plants install and use the most advanced pollution-cutting technology available.
What is the solution?
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 in Maryland and Virginia.
Personal effort Policies alone won't solve the problem. Chesapeake PSR supports efforts to reduce home own energy consumption and switch to renewable energy in homes and businesses.
Coal pollution: a homegrown problem
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- 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.
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