Australia’s power stations are located near regional towns such as Morwell, Victoria, Muswellbrook, New South Wales, and Gladstone, Queensland, or in rural areas well away from cities, writes Dr Ben Ewald. So most people living in cities would assume that they are protected from coal-fired air pollution by distance from the source. However a new Greenpeace report shows this is not the case, and substantial damage to our health from coal derived pollution is also occurring in major cities.
The report, titled Lethal Power, delivers a nation- wide estimate of the health effects from air pollution released by coal- fired electricity generation. The analysis used the same atmospheric modelling software that is specified by the NSW government for environmental assessments such as would be required if the power stations were to be built now. Combining chimney emissions with weather data and chemical reactions in the air the report provides maps of the ground level population exposure to fine particle air pollution, nitrogen dioxide, and mercury showing that these toxic pollutants can travel hundreds of kilometres from the original source.
Air pollution causes a range of health problems affecting the heart, lungs, brain and growth of babies during pregnancy. The new report focuses on just three issues; mortality, days with asthma symptoms for children, and premature births.
Through the international scientific literature, we have known for some time the relationship between many air pollutants and the harm they can do to our health.
Most previous analyses have examined only fine particle pollution but the Greenpeace report counts both fine particles and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) exposure. This information was used to estimate the total number of deaths each year in Australia due to coal power station pollution: 785 per year for the whole country.
To allow for some scientific uncertainty about how to best handle potential double counting of effects of NO2 and fine particles, low and high estimates are presented. This can be interpreted that the lowest value consistent with the science is 373 deaths per year, but this figure might be as high as 1,310.
The two previous published estimates for premature deaths from coal- fired air pollution were for NSW and examined only the effects of fine particles. The 2018 report by Environment Justice Australia found 279 deaths per year. Another estimate published in 2020 from Sydney University showed 45 deaths per year, but based the analysis on 2011 which was the year with the cleanest air of the whole decade.
The Greenpeace figure of 477 for NSW is higher than both these estimates largely due to the inclusion of the impact of nitrogen dioxide. The figures will vary from year to year along with the air quality, but despite differences in the figures there is a consistently important level of health impact.
Subsequent economic analysis by members of the Actuaries Institute has put a dollar value on the health damage of premature births, asthma attacks, and deaths caused by this pollution, at $2.4 billion a year, with 78% of the costs being due to the value of lives lost. This equates to a cost of $15.40 per megawatt hour generated from coal, or about a quarter of the value of the electricity.
This massive cost is borne by the community, but goes largely unrecognised.It is not an inevitable part of generating electricity from coal, as currently available pollution control technology has the potential to greatly minimise the impact. Sulphur dioxide scrubbers and selective catalytic reduction can remove 90% of pollution before it leaves the chimney, and can be retrofitted to existing power stations at moderate cost. Yet ,while these are standard in European and north Asian countries, weak regulations in all Australian states have not required them.
The Greenpeace report shows the impact of air pollution from coal-fired power plants is greater than previously recognised by researchers who excluded the effects of nitrogen dioxide, adding urgency to the task of tackling this pollution. Australia can fix the serious health problems from coal- fired electricity without having to wait 30 years for the old coal- fired power stations to be eventually phased out and replaced by renewable energy from wind and solar.
Any power station with more than five years remaining life should be required to install modern pollution controls. Given the human and economic toll of the toxic pollution from these power plants, Australians should demand nothing less.
Dr Ben Ewald is a GP and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia