US: Thousands die annually from power-plant pollution

Washington, 17 Oct (IPS/Danielle Knight) - Pollution from electric power plants in the United States shortens the lives of more than 30,000 people every year, according to a new report released here by environmental and health researchers.  The study concludes that soot, or fine particle air pollution, from the nation’s ageing coal-fired power plants is causing tens of thousands of asthma attacks, cardiac problems and upper and lower respiratory problems each year.

While many have studied air pollution’s impact on human health, this is the first attempt to examine the direct health impact of these facilities, according to health experts.

“More people die as a result of the pollution from these plants every year than from drunk driving or homicides, societal woes that everyone agrees are top priorities,” says Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, one of the groups that released the report, “Death, Disease and Dirty Power”.

The 25-page report is based on research conducted by Abt Associates, a consulting firm regularly employed by the US Environmental Protection Agency to assess the health benefits of the agency’s programmes. The firm developed a model using health studies which link changes in soot concentrations in the environment to changes in risks of death and illness. Using pollution information made publicly available by the power plants themselves - as required by law - Abt Associates then employed this model to estimate the number of probable deaths from exposure to fine particles emitted from power plants.  Besides 30,000 annual deaths, fine particle soot from power plants also causes an estimated 603,000 asthma attacks nationwide, according to the study.

“We can only hope the information provided through this study will help crystallise the policy debate leading to dramatic reductions in pollution from dirty power plants,” says John Spengler, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, who wrote the foreword to the study.

Fine particles are a mixture of a variety of different compounds and pollutants that originate from power plants, diesel trucks, buses and cars. Among particles, fine particles, or particulates, are of the gravest concern, according to researchers, because they can be inhaled deeply, thus evading the human lungs’ natural defences.

While acknowledging that vehicle exhaust also causes particulate pollution, the study says that power plants outstrip all other polluters as the largest source of sulphates - the major component of fine particle pollution - in the United States.

The study says that the highest per capita death impacts are in “coal country” or states such as Kentucky, West Virginia and Alabama where dirty sulphur-rich coal is burned in power plants.

Children, the elderly and people with existing respiratory diseases face the greatest risk from exposure to fine particles, according to several scientific studies cited in the report.

Beginning with London’s “killer fog” of 1952, in which weather conditions trapped the city in a blanket of hazardous soot, scientists have long argued that particulate pollution from power plants and vehicles causes harmful and even deadly health problems.

The 30-year-old US Clean Air Act has not been successful in controlling soot pollution from power plants, according to the environmental groups releasing the report, including Clear the Air, the National Campaign Against Dirty Power and the Clean Air Task Force.

The law allows old power plants built before the law to circumvent the most protective air emissions standards. As a result, these so-called “grandfathered” power plants are permitted to emit as much as 10 times more nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide than modern coal plants.

“The deaths, hospitalisations and lost work time caused by fine particles from power plants can be reduced comprehensively only when the Clean Air Act’s 30-year loophole for old, dirty power plants is finally closed,” says the report.

In an attempt to close the loophole, the US Environmental Protection Agency eventually decided in 1997 to set a new national air quality standard. But the electric utility industry and diesel trucking companies are fighting these regulations by suing the agency in court.

Several bills circulating in Congress are calling for 75 percent reductions in power-plant emissions.

More than half of the asthma attacks due to power plant particulate pollution could be avoided by cleaning up power plants to modern standards, according to Angela Ledford, campaign manager of Clear the Air, a Washington-based group.  “The staggering rate of death and disease due to power-plant pollution cries out for federal action,” she says.

While electric utility industries are fighting any law that could impact their profit margin, Schneider says the economic benefits of reducing pollution greatly outweigh the costs to industry.

One of the bills before Congress, for example, estimates it will cost $11.5 billion a year to clean up old power plants. Meanwhile, Abt Associates estimates that the nation loses $100 billion annually from health care costs and lost work time. .

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