The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan has been big news today. Most coverage has focused on what it might mean for the climate, utilities, and renewables. However EPA Commissioner Gina McCarthy talked a lot about improvements to public health in her press conference Monday, and for good reason.
Thepotential health benefits from reducing carbon pollution from power plants are pretty big. Coal plants emit more than 30% of greenhouse gases in America, that’s more than an all planes, trains, cars, and ships combined. So cutting carbon pollution now means less serious droughts, less damaging storms, less coastal flooding, all of which come with impacts to human health.
But there’s more to the story than that. Because coal plants are responsible for some big time air pollution, public health has been a major historical trump card in the fight against coal. A 2004 report from the Clean Air Task Force put the number of Americans who die per year as a result of air pollution directly tied to coal plants at 24,000. A 2011 study from the American Lung Association estimated that 13,000 Americans a year die prematurely just from the particulates released by burning coal in power plants.
Given that a clean energy system is ready to be put in place today, even one death is too many. Sadly, the EPA’s plan won’t do away with carbon pollution altogether (or anytime soon). But it’s a start.
Below are seven key ways that seriously reducing carbon emissions from power plants will improve the health of American families and communities.
- The less we go down the climate change rabbit hole, the better. Climate change poses an enormous threat to everybody’s long-term health. And that’s not just true for people who live near the coasts. Increased droughts and severe winters will threaten our food supply. Changes in populations of disease vectors, like ticks and mosquitos, will expose us all to greater risk of maladies like Lyme’s disease and West Nile Virus. And increased severity of calamities like storms, floods, heat waves, and forest fires will increase the risk to already-vulnerable populations.
- Particulate matter released from the burning of coal is tied to health impacts ranging from bronchitis to heart attacks and even Alzheimer’s disease. The most dangerous of particulates are those that are small enough to enter the bloodstream (PM2.5). Read more about PM2.5 exposure and its potential harms here, here, and here.
- Reducing the release of other air contaminants, including nitrogen dioxide (a precursor of ozone) and sulfur dioxide, could also have major ramifications for public health. Both have been associated with increased risk of mortality. For instance, cities with high concentrations of nitrogen oxides have death rates four times higher than those with low concentrations.
- Coal plants in the US produce 120 million tons of toxic coal ash and scrubber sludge every year. Those byproducts pollute our waterways and expose our families to known carcinogens and toxins. There are nearly 600 coal ash dumps in the country, each one a poisonous threat to nearby communities. Closing coal plants, the inevitable consequence of these regulations, may reduce the toxic waste resulting from burning coal.
- Nearly one in ten American children has asthma. Coal-fired power plants cause 554,000 asthma attacks every year.
- Mercury, a known toxin that threatens children and their healthy development, is a byproduct of burning coal. Standards on the release of mercury from coal plants were established in an earlier set of EPA regulations known as the Mercury Air Toxics Standards, or MATS. The potential closure of coal-fired power plants for reasons other than mercury could have the added benefit of reducing mercury levels our children are exposed to.
- The public health impacts of burning coal hit the poorest communities and communities of color first, studies have shown. The same will be true for the impacts of global warming. Moving away from coal is a social justice issue, not just an environmental one.
Climate change and the health impacts of burning coal are not problems for future humans to deal with — they’re affecting lives and livelihoods right now. The Clean Power Plan proposes to cut carbon pollution by 30% of 2005 levels by 2030. The plan could be a lot more ambitious. If it were, the health benefits for American families and communities would that much greater.
Being more ambitious is not just a pipe dream. Greenpeace’s Energy Revolution analysis, released in May, shows that from a technical perspective, the US power sector could achieve almost twice the reductions proposed in the rule.
The faster and more strongly we move away from coal and toward renewable energy, the easier we’ll all be able to breathe.