Access to reliable, affordable and clean electricity has positive impacts on human health. However, the burning of coal for electricity is profoundly damaging to human health.
Coal is responsible for over 800,000 premature deaths per year globally and many millions more serious and minor illnesses. In China alone, around 670,000 people die prematurely per year as a result of coal-related air pollution. The ‘Coal Kills’ report estimates that in India coal contributes to between 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths annually. In the United States coal kills around 13,000 people annually, and 23,300 in Europe. The economic costs of the health impacts from coal combustion in Europe are valued at about US$70 billion per year, with 250,600 life years lost.
The burning of coal emits hazardous air pollutants that can spread for hundreds of kilometres. Pollutants include particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, mercury and arsenic. Exposure to these pollutants can damage people’s cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous systems, increasing the risk of lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases and lethal respiratory infections. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with already compromised health suffer most. In addition to pollution originating from power plants, the mining and transport of coal, as well as the disposal of coal ash waste, can have significant impacts on human health.
Over the past few years, pressure from activists, citizens, and public health care professionals has led to seismic shifts in our understanding and regulation of coal. The Chinese government has now banned the construction of new coal plants in the three key economic regions surrounding the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, after citizens complained about the air pollution impacts. European respiratory experts have called air pollution from coal power plants “an ‘invisible killer’ and one of today’s most important public health threats”. There is a growing recognition that coal makes us sick and its cost to human health is unacceptable.