Coal burning exacts a lethal price - report
March 7, 2013
Burning coal to produce electricity costs Europeans €42.8 billion, or $55 billion, in health care costs annually, a new analysis finds.
In Poland alone, the tab tops €8 billion.
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.
A report by the Health and Environment Alliance, or HEAL, 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 $55 billion) a year.
"Long-term exposure to even low-level pollution is reducing everyone's lung function slightly," a HEAL spokesperson said in an interview.
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.
HEAL is a European non-governmental organization with more than 70 member organizations in 26 countries representing networks of health professionals, non-profit health insurers, patients, citizens, women, youth and environmental experts.
The report 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.
Burning coal to generate electricity worsens a group of conditions known as chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, the report said. These include emphysema, breathing obstructions and bronchitis. It also aggravates asthma and worsens heart disease.
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.
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," he added. "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.
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 is an editor of Climate News Network and a former BBC environment correspondent.
Climate News Network is a journalism 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.
Photo of coal plant in Turow, Poland, courtesy CEE Bankwatch Network.
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