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Diving Deeper

Raising Awareness of the Health Impacts of Coal Plant Pollution

Related Focus Area: Power Plants

Toll From Coal Interactive Map

Toll From Coal Map

In 2000, 2004, 2010, and 2018, the Clean Air Task Force issued studies based on a methodology and model created by Abt Associates, U.S EPA’s own health benefits consultant, based on peer-reviewed, published studies by the nation’s leading public health researchers, quantifying the deaths and other adverse health effects attributable to the fine particle air pollution resulting from coal-fired power plant emissions. Since 2004, CATF has presented this data on our website in the form of an interactive map that allows the user to click on individual power plants to learn the health impacts attributable to each. In 2021, CATF conducted this work, relying on US EPA’s CO-Benefits Risk Assessment Health Impacts Screening and Mapping Tool (COBRA) and 2019 power plant emissions from the CAMD database. These 2019 results are presented at www.tollfromcoal.org

This latest report finds that nearly 3,000 deaths each year are attributable to fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants. This represents a dramatic reduction in power plant health impacts from the previous studies. Our initial study in 2000 estimated the number of attributable deaths at 30,000 per year. By 2004, the number of attributable deaths in our study had fallen to 24,000. By 2010, the number was roughly 13,000 deaths per year. In 2014, that number had fallen to 7,500 deaths and by 2016 had dropped to just over 3,100 deaths per year. For consistency, these result totals are derived from Pope et al. (2002) for results up to 2016, and Krewski et al. (2009) in 2019. Data presented on the Toll From Coal website rely on the concentration-response function from Lepeule et al. (2012).

The reductions in mortality reflect the success of the efforts of advocates to win a variety of federal and state regulatory and enforcement initiatives that CATF has supported, including the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule (MATS) and the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), the active enforcement of existing regulations such as New Source Review (NSR), the successes of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” Campaign in winning the retirement of coal units, and the falling prices of cleaner energy sources such as renewables and natural gas. Between 2004 and 2019, these measures have dropped Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) pollution by 90% and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) by 75%, the leading components of fine particle pollution. This was achieved through the near doubling of the number of scrubbers (the technology used for reducing SO2 pollution) installed at power plants and additional retirements of coal capacity. The MATS rule alone is saving nearly 11,000 lives per year.

The updated study shows that strong regulations that require stringent emission controls can have a dramatic impact in reducing air pollution across the country, saving lives, and avoiding a host of other adverse health impacts. The study also shows regrettably that some areas of the country still suffer from unnecessary levels of pollution from power plants that could be cleaned up with the application of proven emission control technologies.