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Coal Burning Exacts A Lethal Price, Says Study

By Alex Kirby, Climate News Network

London — Campaigners are urging a halt to the building of coal plants and an end to the burning of coal throughout the European Union by 2040.

They say this is needed both to ensure better public health, and to help to lessen the damage from climate change. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels is blamed for causing thousands of premature deaths and for damaging children’s lives.

Coal keeps the lights on: But concern is growing for health and the planet.
Credit: J W Randolph.

A report by the group says moving away from fossil fuels would significantly reduce chronic lung disease and some heart conditions.

It puts the health costs of coal-fired power stations to the people of Europe at up to €42.8 billion (almost $56 billion or £37 billion) a year.

The evaluation in the new report is based on a calculation of the costs associated with premature deaths resulting from exposure to coal-related air pollution, medical visits, hospitalizations, medication and reduced activity, including working days lost.

The report comes from the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a European non-governmental organization with over 70 member organizations in 26 countries representing networks of health professionals, non-profit health insurers, patients, citizens, women, youth and environmental experts.

Entitled The unpaid health bill: How coal power plants make us sick, it provides what HEAL says is the first-ever calculation of the effects of coal-fired power generation on chronic lung disease and some heart conditions.

The report says coal-burning to generate electricity worsens a group of conditions known as chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases: these include emphysema, breathing obstructions and bronchitis. It also aggravates asthma and worsens heart disease.

No Escaping the Effects

HEAL says the elderly and the young are at particular risk, with lung damage sustained in childhood reducing the chances of achieving maximum lung function in adult life.

Significantly, it has found that the effects of the pollution which coal incineration causes are not confined to people living close to power stations, but can affect entire populations in varying degrees.

Diana Smith of HEAL told the Climate News Network: “Long-term exposure to even low-level pollution is reducing everyone’s lung function slightly, even though this may not show up clinically.

“We realize that governments have to make sure energy is available to keep society functioning. But the European Commission’s Energy Roadmap 2050 envisages a substantial decrease in coal use by 2030, and almost zero use by 2050.”

Genon Jensen, HEAL’s executive director, says: “Our report offers the scientific evidence on the health impacts of coal and provides vital information from a health perspective that should be taken into account when determining energy policy.”

“The findings are particularly worrying given that the use of coal is now rising after years of decline. The startlingly high costs to human health should trigger a major rethink on EU energy policy.”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicted in 2008 that world energy consumption would rise by 50 percent by 2030, with coal consumption rising between 2005 and 2030 by an average of 2 percent annually (and see our story of March 6, Coal triggers carbon level rise).

Global coal use is reported to have increased by 48 percent between 2000 and 2009, mainly because of growth in China and elsewhere in Asia. In Europe 93.6 percent of coal (hard coal and lignite together) is used for generating power.

HEAL says coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source in Europe, responsible for approximately 20 percent of carbon emissions.

The number of premature deaths across the European Union linked to air pollution in all its forms each year is 492,000. The EU has designated 2013 its Year of Air.

Alex Kirby, a former BBC environment correspondent, is a founding journalist of Climate News Network. Climate News Network is a news service led by four veteran British environmental reporters and broadcasters. It delivers news and commentary about climate change for free to media outlets worldwide.