Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Public Health and the Externalized Costs of Coal

Coal-fired power plants have been linked to developmental defects in 300,000 infants born at risk because of their mother's exposure to toxic mercury pollution from coal plants.  Asthma rates are skyrocketing in communities exposed to particulates from burning coal, and now 1 out of 10 children suffers from asthma. 

The Impaired Indiana Waterbodies (303d) list identifies water bodies that do not meet federal water quality standards. Within this report, both Lake Maxinkuckee in Marshall County and the Tippecanoe River in Fulton County are identified as having mercury levels that do not meet federal standards.  Moreover, due to mercury contamination, the Indiana State Department of Health consumption advisory suggests adult men not to eat more than one meal per month of Walleye caught from Lake Max.  Children and women of child-bearing age have even greater restrictions.

In 2010, Abt Associates issued a study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, quantifying the deaths and other health effects attributable to fine particle pollution from coal-fired power plants.  Fine particle pollution consists of a complex mixture of soot, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.  Among these particles, the most dangerous are those less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which are so tiny that they can evade the lung's natural defenses, enter the bloodstream, and be transported to vital organs.  Impacts are especially severe among the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease.  The study found that over 13,000 deaths and tens of thousands of cases of chronic bronchitis, acute bronchitis, asthma, congestive heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, dysrhythmia, ischemic heart disease, chronic lung disease, and pneumonia each year are attributable to fine particle pollution from U.S. coal plant emissions.  These deaths and illnesses are major examples of coal's external costs.  To monetize the health impact of fine particle pollution from each coal plant, Abt assigned a value of $7,300,000 to each 2010 mortality, based on a range of government and private studies.  Valuations of illnesses ranged from $52 for an asthma episode to $440,000 for a case of chronic bronchitis.

Using data from this report, the following deaths and diseases can be attributed to fine particle pollution from the local coal power plant. 

Type of Impact                  Annual Incidence             Valuation
Deaths                               89                                       $650,000,000
Heart attacks                     140                                     $15,000,000
Asthma attacks                 1,500                                  $78,000
Hospital admissions          65                                       $1,500,000
Chronic bronchitis            55                                       $24,000,000
Asthma ER visits               94                                       $35,000
Source: Clean Air Task Force, March 2011

Putting things in perspective, there is truly no comparison between the detrimental health impacts from coal burning power plants and the faint woosh sound you might hear from a wind turbine.


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