Coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, is much more harmful for human health than previously thought, according to a new report, which finds that coal emissions are associated with twice the risk of mortality compared to fine airborne particles from other sources . From a report: The research, published Thursday in the journal Science, linked coal pollution to 460,000 deaths among Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 and older between 1999 and 2020. But the study also found that during that period , the closure of coal-fired power plants in the United States, combined with the installation of scrubbers in smokestacks to “clean” coal exhaust gases, had salutary effects. Deaths attributable to coal plant emissions among Medicare beneficiaries fell from about 50,000 a year in 1999 to 1,600 in 2020, a decrease of more than 95 percent, the researchers found.
“Things were bad, it was terrible,” Lucas Henneman, lead author of the study and assistant professor of environmental engineering at George Mason University, said in an interview. “We’ve made progress and it’s really good.” Researchers from six universities collected data on emissions from 480 coal-fired power plants between 1999 and 2020. They used atmospheric modeling to track how sulfur dioxide turned into particles and where it was transported by the wind, then examined millions of Medicare patient deaths by zip code.
Although the researchers could not identify the exact causes of death, the statistical model showed that areas with more airborne anthrax particles had higher death rates. According to the researchers, some 138 coal plants each contributed to at least 1,000 additional deaths, and 10 plants were linked to more than 5,000 deaths each. While fine particles, known as PM 2.5, are frequently examined for their health risks, researchers have found that inhaling these fine particles from coal exhaust is particularly deadly.