The decommissioning of coal-fired power plants in the continental United States has reduced nearby pollution and its impacts on human health and crop yields, reports a study published this week in Nature Sustainability.
The shift from coal towards natural gas for electric power generation in the United States has reduced carbon dioxide emissions. The burning of coal also creates particulates and ozone, which can affect human and plant health and regional climate, and has been linked to increased mortality and reduced crop yields.
Jennifer Burney et al. from UC San Diego wanted to see what additional effects on the surrounding environment came from the shuttering up of coal-fired power plants resulting from a possible reduction in air pollution in the form of particulates tossed into the sky during the coal-burning process.
Many of these pollutants are classified as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, an example of which is benzine, and are known to be carcinogens.
While its difficult to determine exactly which deaths from cardiorespiratory issues or cancer come as a result of air pollution from factories, noticeable trends in nationally-reported statistics on all-cause mortality following the closing down of coal plants tell an intriguing story.
How to save a life
Burney found that between 2005 and 2016, the association between the shutdown of coal-fired units and the resulting decrease in all-cause mortality of the immediate surrounding population saved an estimated 26,610 lives from deaths due to things like cardiorespiratory diseases.
“The deaths are assumed to be NOT necessarily workers, but rather among the full population nearby that is exposed to pollution from plants as they operate (importantly, these numbers don’t count coal miner exposures, as those are often in locations far away from the plants that burn the coal)” says Burney In response to questions from World at Large.
“One of the difficult characteristics of air pollution-related deaths is that they are often not obviously due to pollution — it affects cardiovascular, respiratory, and other pathways, and deaths are usually just coded as such”.
Remarkably, 570 million fewer bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat in the vicinities of the power plants were lost in the years between 2005 and 2016.
These findings suggest that switching to more modern forms of energy production could have unforeseen or additional advantages for public welfare than just a decrease in CO2 emissions. Most of the decommissioned coal plants and their vicinities examined in the study were replaced with natural gas plants.
“They are not associated with the same kinds of bad impacts on mortality and crop yields when operating (as the coal plants were),” said Burney, “but I’m reluctant to call them benign because they are associated with rising levels of other pollutants (mostly ozone) in different patterns”.
The more questions a scientist can ask when trying to determine the causes and mechanisms of a particular observable effect, the closer that scientist can get to producing an unbiased and accurate analysis.