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Shutdown of coal-fired plants in U.S. saved 26,610 lives

Christian Fernsby |
The decommissioning of coal-fired power plants in the continental United States has reduced nearby pollution and its negative impacts on human health, according to a new University of California San Diego study.

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The findings published in Nature Sustainability use the U.S. transition in recent years from coal towards natural gas for electric power generation to study the local impacts of coal-fired unit shutdowns.

While the shift from coal to natural gas has reduced carbon dioxide emissions overall, it has also changed local pollution levels at hundreds of areas around the country.

In particular, the burning of coal creates particulate matter and ozone in the lower atmosphere often experienced as "smog" which can affect humans, plants and regional climate.

These pollutants (aerosols, ozone and other compounds) from coal burning can wreak havoc on human health when inhaled, and also have damaging effects on plant life.

They also alter local climate by blocking incoming sunlight.

The author, Jennifer Burney, associate professor of environmental science at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, combined data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on electric power generation with satellite and surface measurements from the EPA as well as NASA to gauge changes in local pollution before and after coal-fired unit shut-downs.

She also studied changes in county-level mortality rates and crop yields using data from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Burney found that between 2005 and 2016, the shutdown of coal-fired units saved an estimated 26,610 lives and 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat in their immediate vicinities.

The inverse calculation, estimating the damages caused by coal plants left in operation over that same time period, suggests they contributed to 329,417 premature deaths and the loss of 10.2 billion bushels of crops, roughly equivalent to half of year's typical production in the U.S.


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