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The Real Cost of Coal

Posted by Kristen Welker-Hood, ScD, MSN, RN on January 6, 2009

To what extent is human health is harmed by air pollution? While air pollution adversely affects the entire U.S. population, certain populations — children, the elderly, and people suffering from chronic illness — are particularly vulnerable. Compared to adults, children spend more time out of doors, breathe more rapidly, and inhale more pollutants per pound of body weight. The elderly are more susceptible because their immune systems are weakened by age and they often suffer from one or more chronic illnesses. Poor and minority communities also are disproportionately affected by air pollution because they often are situated closer to pollution sources.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to set standards (National Ambient Air Quality Standards, NAAQS) for widespread pollutants from numerous and diverse sources in order to protect public health, including the health of "sensitive" populations.  There are six principal pollutants for which NAAQ standards have been set: carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide (NOx), sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and ozone.

Localities in which air monitoring demonstrates a persistent exceedance of the NAAQS, or that contribute to the failure of a nearby area to meet air standards, are labeled as "non-attainment areas."  Find out what areas are in non-attainment in your state at this EPA website.

To challenge the permitting of a proposed new coal plant, opponents must successfully argue that local or state air quality will worsen.  These arguments have greater impact when they can be tied to research-based findings showing coal pollution's impact on health.  Equally useful would be evidence that the cost of the health impacts from coal-fired plant pollution is an immense burden on the budgets of municipalities and the state.  Unfortunately, there has been a dearth of scientific research to support these arguments.  However, here are two salient papers on this topic that might be of help. 

The first is an older article by Landrigan, Schechter, Lipton, Fahs and Schwartz published in Environmental Health Perspectives (2002) that estimates the morbidity, mortality and costs of lead poisoning, asthma, cancer, and developmental disability.  Several pollutants released from coal plans can contribute to childhood asthma, including PM 2.5 and the secondary production of ozone from the NOx.  Likewise, the mercury spewed from coal stacks is a persistent neurotoxin that places 300,000 to 600,000 newborns at risk for developmental disability each year.  Neonatal developmental disabilities may include mental retardation, brain damage, or cerebral palsy.  Exposure during early childhood can reduce IQ and result in learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders.

Landrigan et al. estimated that the annual health cost of pediatric disease burden caused by environmental pollution was $54.9 billion.  In fact, just childhood asthma attributed to environmental pollution hits the nation's pocket book for $43.4 billion each year.  Yikes!  The article also provides methods for identifying the environmental attributable fraction, and techniques to go from number of cases to estimated health care costs.

A new report that deals directly with the health costs to society of exceeding the NAAQ standards was written by Hall, Brajer, and Lurmann. This study assesses the cost of the status quo, as well as the health and related economic benefits that would result from achieving the federal ozone and PM2.5 standards in the South Coast and San Joaquin Valley air basins.  A major finding is that the California economy loses about $28 billion annually due to premature deaths and illnesses linked to ozone and particulates spewed from hundreds of sources.  While the dollar value is not generalizable to other states, the report does provide an innovative methodology for determining the "external" costs of air pollution in any state.

Once we are able to quantify the costs that coal combustion inflicts on our communities, the value of the health care and treatment made necessary by coal-induced disease, the value of the time lost from work and school, and the dollar equivalent of the lives lost from unnecessary disease, then we will be able to make meaningful comparisons between the true cost of coal and the cost of developing health energy alternatives.

 

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