Pollutants from coal-based electricity generation kill 170,000 people annually

Pollutants from coal-based electricity generation kill 170,000 people annually

The image shows the old Cahokia Power Plant in Sauget, IL which has been decommissioned for 31 years. Photo: Jay Dugger

Top British climate scientist Professor James Lovelock FRS has warned that over 6 billion people will die this century due to unaddressed climate change. Already 16 million people die avoidably in the world each year due to deprivation and deprivation-exacerbated disease (see: “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950†(G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007). It is already clear from declining agricultural production due to drought and massive storm surge disasters in India, Bangladesh, Burma and the US that global warming is already impacting on global avoidable mortality.

"The report found that the “true cost†of coal-based electricity was 4-5 times the “market price†depending upon whether one valued a human life at $4 million or $5 million."

Greenhouse gas pollution – mostly due to carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel burning – is driving global warming and attendant species extinctions, droughts, sea level rise, decreased agricultural production and increased human death. However a major reality that is generally ignored is the death toll associated with pollutants other than CO2 generated by fossil fuel burning, notably carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, particulates, volatile organic components, nitrogen oxides and heavy metals such as mercury. As outlined below an upper limit of about 0.3 million people die avoidably each year in the world due to the effects of toxic pollutants from fossil fuel burning.

The Ministry of Energy of Ontario, Canada, commissioned a report into “true cost†of coal-fired power plants i.e. the “true cost†taking into account the environmental cost and the human impact in terms of mortality (deaths) and morbidity (illness) (see: "Cost Benefit Analysis: Replacing Ontario's Coal-Fired Electricity Generation" (PDF) by DSS Management Consultants Inc. and RWDI Air Inc., for the Ontario Ministry of Energy, April, 2005, 93 pages). The report found that the “true cost†of coal-based electricity was 4-5 times the “market price†depending upon whether one valued a human life at $4 million or $5 million.

Of crucial importance to analysis of human deaths from coal-based electricity generation, the Canadian report found that 668 Ontarians die due to 27 TWh (27 trillion Watt hours) of electricity generation (for a summary see: http://evworld.com).

Canada and Ontario in particular have excellent medical services that are readily accessed by all members of society. Further, the population density in Ontario is much lower than in other countries (indeed even continental Australia most of the coal-fired power stations and most of the population are confined to relatively densely populated coastal regions). Accordingly, estimates of “annual coal-based electricity deaths†in other countries based on the Ontario ratio of 668 avoidable deaths per annum /27 TWh = 24.7 deaths per TWh are likely to be UNDER-estimates.

Coal, gas and oil burning all produce toxic agents such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, particulates, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, volatile organic components and heavy metals, notably mercury (Hg) (see: http://dar.csiro.au/.../urbanpollution.html). Sulphur (S) content varies and mercury (Hg) pollution from combusted petroleum and natural gas is about 10 times less than that which derives from coal (66 Mg/y in the US); however this estimate was based on Hg from US fuel oil of 1,500 kg/y whereas the US EPA estimates Hg from fuel oil at 10,000 kg/y (10 Mg/y: http://www.epa.gov/.../.pdf).

"This could each year save some 25,000 lives, reduce respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, avert potential neurological damage for 630,000 babies, and erase a health care bill of over $160 billion."

We will initially ASSUME for arithmetic simplicity and “ball-park estimation†that the oil, gas and coal combustibles used to generate electricity are equally dirty in terms of toxic products and deadly impact – and then go back to assess coal-specific electricity generation using available data on the percentage of fossil–fuel-based electricity generation due to coal burning.

For authoritative information on energy usage we can refer to the US Energy Information Administration (US EIA) that reports official energy statistics from the US Government covering the last quarter century. For all US EIA International data see: http://eia.doe.gov/international and for US EIA data on 2005 thermal electricity production, see http://eia.doe.gov/.../electricitygeneration.html.

The Ontario Ministry of Energy study indicated 668 deaths /27 TWh of coal-based electricity generation = 24.7 deaths/TWh. Using this figure we can estimate annual deaths from fossil fuel-based electricity generation (assuming equality in toxicity of coal, oil and gas burning and other factors such as medical services, population density and environmental protection services). Since Canada has excellent, publicly-accessible medical services, low population density and good environmental protection our estimate for other countries will be under-estimated - however the assumption that coal-burning is no more toxic than the burning of other fossil fuels may lead to over-estimation of the death toll.

Before providing these mortality estimates for all major fossil fuel-burning nations, it is useful to compare the estimates of annual deaths from fossil fuel-based electricity generation (“annual fossil fuel-based electricity deathsâ€) with those from coal-based electricity generation (â€annual coal-based electricity deathsâ€) for several key countries. Thus “annual fossil fuel-based electricity deaths†for the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are 71,877, 6,854, 5,394, 3,760 and 355, respectively (2005). These estimates are compared with estimates for “annual coal-based electricity deaths†for these countries.

"For the World as a whole coal provides 40% of the total electricity i.e. 6,940 TWh/y and corresponding to 171,418 “annual coal-based electricity deaths."

The US “annual coal-based electricity deaths†have been estimated at 30,000 [2002]: “Coal-burning air pollution harms human heath in several different ways. Tiny particles of sulfur and nitrogen from coal burners lodge deep in our lungs, causing as many as 30,000 premature deaths per year, according to the most up-to-date study by EPA consultant Abt Associates“. According to Janet Larsen of The Earth Policy Institute it is 25,100 [2004]: “By moving beyond coal, the United States could avoid a legacy of smog-filled skies, acid rain, polluted waterways, contaminated fish, and scarred landscapes. This could each year save some 25,000 lives, reduce respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, avert potential neurological damage for 630,000 babies, and erase a health care bill of over $160 billionâ€.

49% of US electricity of 4,065 TWh is from coal i.e. 1,991 TWh (2006: Sources: Wikipedia and EIA) indicating 49,153 [2006] â€annual coal-based electricity deaths†as compared to 71,887 “total annual fossil fuel-based electricity deathsâ€.

The UK produced 409 TWh of electricity in 2005 of which 33.6% was coal-based i.e. 137.4 TWh, this corresponding to 137.4 TWh x 668/27 TWh = 3,399 [2005] “annual coal-based electricity deaths†as compared to 6,854 “total annual fossil fuel-based electricity deathsâ€.

Australia produced 255 TWh of electricity in 2006 of which 92% was from fossil fuels and 77% was from burning black or brown coal, this yielding an estimate of 0.77 x 255 TWh x 668/27 TWh = 4,858[2006] â€annual coal-based electricity deaths†as compared to 0.77 x 5,394/0.92 = 4,515 [2005] â€annual coal-based electricity deaths†(see above) and total â€annual fossil fuel-based electricity deaths†of 5,395 (2005; see above).

Canada produced 567 TWh of electricity in 2003 of which 28% was from fossil fuels and 19% was from coal burning i.e.107.7 TWh and we can calculate 107.7 TWh x 668/27 TWh = 2,665 [2003] â€annual coal-based electricity deaths†as compared to 0.19 x 3,760/0.28= 2,551 [2005] â€annual coal-based electricity deaths†and 3,760 [2005] “total annual fossil fuel-based electricity deathsâ€.

New Zealand produced 41.6 TWh of electricity in 2005. In 2004, 73% of the total input into electricity generation was from renewable resources(predominantly hydro), 16% was from gas and 11% was from coal i.e. 4.6TWh (2005) corresponding to 114 [2005] “annual coal-based electricity deaths†as compared to 355 “total annual fossil fuel-based electricity deathsâ€.

"The warnings of such eminent scientists are obfuscated by self-interested climate scepticism, especially from the leading per capita CO2 polluters, the US and Australia."

It is useful to compare the above figures from the “Anglo†countries with those for the World and the major non-European Developing countries China and India using data from the US Energy Information Administration, the World Coal Institute and the Pew Centre on Climate Change (see: http://pewclimate.org/.../coalfacts.cfm). Thus the “total annual fossil fuel-based electricity deaths†for India, China and the World can be estimated to be 13,319, 47,477 and 282, 945, respectively. In India 69% of electricity is from coal i.e. 456.5 TWh/y corresponding to 11, 276 “annual coal-based electricity deathsâ€. In China about 80% of electricity is from coal, corresponding to 1,898 TWh/y and 46,868 “annual coal-based electricity deathsâ€. For the World as a whole coal provides 40% of the total electricity i.e. 6,940 TWh/y and corresponding to 171,418 “annual coal-based electricity deathsâ€.

The World is not responding to warnings from top climate scientists such as NASA’s Dr James Hansen and his colleagues who are calling for a “negative CO2 emissions†policy to reduce atmospheric CO2 to a safe level of no more than 350 ppm from the current already dangerous level of 385 ppm (see: http://arxiv.org/.../.pdf and http://mwcnews.net/.../23119/42/). The warnings of such eminent scientists are obfuscated by self-interested climate scepticism, especially from the leading per capita CO2 polluters, the US and Australia.

However the above analysis shows that there is a horrendous reality ALREADY of about 170,000 deaths annually throughout the world from the effects of coal-based electricity generation and as many as 0.3 million deaths annually from pollutants from fossil fuel-based electricity generation in general – a huge death toll that cannot be ignored. Please tell everyone you can.

Dr Gideon Polya published some 130 works in a 4 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text "Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds" (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London, 2003). He has just published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950†(G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007: http://mwcnews.net and http://globalbodycount.blogspot.com);

see also his contribution “Australian complicity in Iraq mass mortality†in “Lies, Deep Fries & Statistics†(edited by Robyn Williams, ABC Books, Sydney, 2007). He is currently preparing a revised and updated version of his 1998 book “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History†as biofuel-, globalization- and climate-driven global food price increases threaten a possibly 100-fold greater famine catastrophe than the man-made famine in British-ruled India that killed 6-7 million Indians in the "forgotten" World War 2 Bengal Famine (see recent BBC broadcast involving Dr Polya, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and others).


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Dr Gideon Polya
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Guest Holidaymaine

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The governments of the world is not taking this as serious as they should and people will pay with their lives. I how it does not come to 16 billion death before the really take notice. Everyone should do there part in saving our planet as well.

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Guest Derek Wall

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If you are based in the Uk come and join the fight against the Kingsnorth coal fired station n Kent, the climate camp in August aims to close it down and I am supporting this in my official capacity as Green Party Speaker. http://another-green-world.blogspot.com/2008/06/join-with-thousands-in-mass-action-to.html

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Americans in an absolutely impossible position and held there by the Asian Fact! They cannot process coal, with oil so cheap, and lie to the people about it! They will burn oil until the dollar won't buy it anymore, and a falling dollar indicates, that will be sooner, not later! They are doomed to fry in their own oil dilemma! Caught between a rock and a hard place by Asians who out produce them and use a multi-range of fuels to do so! Neck to neck in a competition, to the death, for the world's resources, the American dollar can no longer command 80% of resources needed for its survival, as it once did, the Yuan strengthening as we speak, and trusted, world-wide, so far, looks to be taking over, and leaving the great fat-assed, spoiled, "Entitled", American citizen out in the cold, eating spam, and taking buses out of New York City Center, one way, to the boon-docks, prepaid by the Uber-Rich folk! Poor devils can't even get humane health care in their own country! Sad, Sad reflection on a dying corporatist, capitalist, 200 year venture, now he has moved with all his riches to the Beijing, Shanghai, and Hang Seng stock markets, converted to Yuan to be safe from the dollar's impending doom, its spectacular race downwards exceeding crash speeds, and dying many floors beneath Hell! It is historic!

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Americans in an absolutely impossible position and held there by the Asian Fact! They cannot process coal, with oil so cheap, and lie to the people about it! They will burn oil until the dollar won't buy it anymore, and a falling dollar indicates, that will be sooner, not later! They are doomed to fry in their own oil dilemma! Caught between a rock and a hard place by Asians who out produce them and use a multi-range of fuels to do so! Neck to neck in a competition, to the death, for the world's resources, the American dollar can no longer command 80% of resources needed for its survival, as it once did, the Yuan strengthening as we speak, and trusted, world-wide, so far, looks to be taking over, and leaving the great fat-assed, spoiled, "Entitled", American citizen out in the cold, eating spam, and taking buses out of New York City Center, one way, to the boon-docks, prepaid by the Uber-Rich folk! Poor devils can't even get humane health care in their own country! Sad, Sad reflection on a dying corporatist, capitalist, 200 year venture, now he has moved with all his riches to the Beijing, Shanghai, and Hang Seng stock markets, converted to Yuan to be safe from the dollar's impending doom, its spectacular race downwards exceeding crash speeds, and dying many floors beneath Hell! It is historic!

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Guest Portable Generators for Sale

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I agree that the gas from a coal based electricity plant can harm thousands of people because of it's harmful content. The government must find other ways to reduce coal powered electricity plants.

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It is SO overtime for more green power initiatives like wind and solar. Why so many people continue to push for coal and oil is beyond me. The cost is so much higher. People are too near-sighted.

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This Coal Burning Death´s Issue, can be solved with Technology Innovation! 

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