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Study Reveals Alarming Health Impact of Coal-Based Pollution: PM2.5 Particles from Coal Plants Double Risk of Premature Death

In a recent study conducted by researchers from George Mason University, Harvard, and the University of Texas at Austin, the harmful effects of PM2.5 particles, particularly those originating from coal-fired power plants, on human health have been found to be more severe than previously thought. The study, published in Science on November 23, sheds light on the underestimated mortality burden associated with exposure to fine particle pollutants.

Lead author Lucas Henneman, an assistant professor of civil, environmental, and infrastructure engineering at George Mason University, emphasized the gravity of the findings. He stated, “PM2.5 from coal has been treated as if it’s just another air pollutant. But it’s much more harmful than we thought, and its mortality burden has been seriously underestimated.”

The study, which analyzed over two decades of Medicare data from 1999 to 2020, revealed that exposure to PM2.5 from coal could have contributed to over 460,000 deaths in the United States during the study period. Most of these deaths occurred between 1999 and 2007 when coal PM2.5 levels were at their highest.

The researchers employed detailed data on emissions from 480 U.S. coal plants during the same period, assessing how these emissions affected local death rates. The findings indicated that a rise in airborne coal PM2.5 levels resulted in a 1.12% increase in local death rates, which was double the increase compared to PM2.5 from other sources.

Francesca Dominici, a study co-author and professor of biostatistics, population, and data science at Harvard, highlighted the significance of the research in the context of energy policy decisions. She mentioned, “As countries debate their energy sources — and as coal maintains a powerful, almost mythical status in American energy lore — our findings are highly valuable to policymakers and regulators as they weigh the need for cheap energy with the significant environmental and health costs.”

The study also offered some positive insights, noting that reductions in the prevalence of coal-fired power plants after 2007 correlated with a rapid decrease in associated deaths. Study senior author Corwin Zigler, associate professor of statistics and data sciences at UT Austin, viewed this as a success story, stating, “Coal power plants were this major burden that U.S. policies have already significantly reduced.”

While acknowledging the progress, Zigler emphasized the need for further advancements toward a cleaner energy future to continue improving health outcomes and saving lives.

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