December 12, 2023

Deaths associated with pollution from coal power plants

At a Glance

  • A careful analysis found that air pollution from coal power plants is associated with greater mortality than previously thought.
  • It also found that such deaths have decreased due to air pollution regulations and coal power plant retirements.
  • The findings highlight the health benefits of continuing to reduce coal emissions.
Aerial view of coal power plant with dark smoke at sunset. Understanding the effects of air pollution from individual power plants could help in designing more targeted policies to improve people’s health. Bilanol / Shutterstock

Coal-burning power plants are a major source of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution. Exposure to PM2.5 is associated with increased risk of death. To judge the success of measures to improve air quality, we need to estimate the health impacts, including death, associated with specific air pollution sources. Previous attempts to do so have assumed that PM2.5 from all sources is equally toxic. But coal PM2.5 is rich in sulfur dioxide, black carbon, and metals. Recent evidence suggests that such emissions may be more deadly than PM2.5 from other sources.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Lucas Henneman at George Mason University, the Harvard School of Public Health, and UT Austin set out to estimate the number of deaths nationwide associated with PM2.5 from coal power plants. They analyzed a vast dataset of Medicare death records dating from 1999. They then modeled where air currents carried emissions from 480 individual coal power plants. This allowed them to estimate coal PM2.5 exposure where the people lived and died. Results appeared in Science on November 23, 2023.

The researchers calculated that for every 1 μg/m3 increase in coal PM2.5, mortality increased by 1.12%. This is more than twice the risk that was previously associated with general PM2.5 exposure from all air pollution sources. The team estimated that between 1999 and 2020, 460,000 deaths would not have occurred in the absence of emission from the coal power plants.

There was a notable decline in the number of deaths from coal PM2.5 during the period studied. From 2000 to 2008, deaths associated with coal PM2.5 were 25% of all PM2.5-related deaths in the Medicare population. From 2013 to 2016, coal PM2.5 deaths were only 7% of all PM2.5-related deaths. This was likely due to coal power plant retirements and air pollution regulations that reduced emissions.

About 140 coal power plants were each associated with more than 1,000 excess deaths during the study period. Ten plants, all located east of the Mississippi River, were associated with more than 5,000 deaths. When a plant installed pollution control technology (called emissions scrubbers) or shut down, the number of associated deaths declined. For example, the Keystone facility in Pennsylvania was one of the deadliest power plants over the period studied. It was associated with more than 600 deaths per year on average before installing emissions scrubbers. After scrubber installation, that number dropped to 80 per year.

“PM2.5 from coal has been treated as if it’s just another air pollutant. But it’s much more harmful than we thought, and its mortality burden has been seriously underestimated,” Henneman explains.

But the decline in mortality over time highlights the success of emissions reductions at improving health. “I see this as a success story,” says senior author Dr. Corwin Zigler of UT Austin. “Coal power plants were this major burden that U.S. policies have already significantly reduced.”

This approach to pinpoint the effects of individual power plants might be used to design more targeted policies to further reduce the health impacts of air pollution sources.

—by Brian Doctrow, Ph.D.

Related Links

References: Mortality risk from United States coal electricity generation. Henneman L, Choirat C, Dedoussi I, Dominici F, Roberts J, Zigler C. Science. 2023 Nov 24;382(6673):941-946. doi: 10.1126/science.adf4915. Epub 2023 Nov 23. PMID: 37995235.

Funding: NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Institute on Minority and Health Disparities (NIMHD), and National Institute on Aging (NIA); US Environmental Protection Agency; Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; The Health Effects Institute.