Coal-powered emissions more deadly than previously thought, study finds

Coal Power Plant Natalie Behring/Getty Images
Coal Power Plant Natalie Behring/Getty Images

A new paper published in Science shows that particulate matter from coal plants are more harmful than previously thought. The team of researchers from across the United States looked at data from 480 coal-fueled power plants and found that approximately 460,000 deaths in the Medicare population could be attributed to coal emissions, twice the number of premature deaths that was previously reported. The researchers also ranked coal plants by deadliest, and found the top 10 were associated with more than 5,000 deaths. The study estimated that coal-fueled plants in two states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, likely caused more than 103,000 deaths nationwide since 1999.

“Fine particle air pollution from coal has been treated as if it’s just another air pollutant,” said the paper’s lead author Lucas Henneman, an assistant professor of environmental engineering at George Mason University. “But it’s much more harmful than we thought and its mortality burden has been seriously underestimated.”

There was one bit of good news in the data: deaths from coal were highest in 1999, but by 2020 they decreased by about 95 percent. Researchers emphasized that their study shows that cutting emissions from coal-powered plants, and moving toward clean energy, can save lives of those who live near and far away from the plants. As policymakers continue to weigh the future of the coal industry, the researchers say the results of this study should be significantly weighed.

“As countries debate their energy sources — and as coal maintains a powerful, almost mythical status in American energy lore—our findings are highly valuable to policymakers and regulators as they weigh the need for cheap energy with the significant environmental and health costs,” said co-author Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics, population and data science at Harvard Chan School and director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative.