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Electricity Use, Coal Consumption, and Public Health

Electricity Use, Coal Consumption, and Public HealthBalancing benefits and risks as global demand for electricity rises

(RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC) Electricity use has health benefits in diverse populations worldwide, but the relationship is not linear, and increasing use past a certain threshold may not add benefits. Additionally, those benefits may be offset by negative health impacts of the fuel used to generate electricity. A multitiered analysis published February 21 in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) investigates the relationship between coal consumption, electricity use, and health impacts, as well as the related implications for climate and energy policy.

Environmental hazards such as contaminated water and poor sanitation tend to be mitigated by access to a reliable electricity source, according to the study authors. Access to electricity also reduces in-home burning of inefficient and polluting fuels such as coal, wood, and animal dung. However, depending on how the electricity is generated, new health hazards may be introduced, including exposure to particulate matter, sulfur oxides, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and ozone emitted during power generation.

The study used an autoregressive time-series model that encompassed 40 years’ worth of data (1965–2005) on infant mortality, life expectancy, electricity use, and coal consumption from 41 countries. The model suggested that electricity use improved infant mortality rates, but only in countries where rates were relatively high in 1965. Life expectancy did not appear to be affected by electricity use, but increasing coal consumption was associated with reduced life expectancy and increased infant mortality.

The autoregressive model results were then compared with estimates from two independent methods for modeling health impacts of energy-related environmental exposures. The World Health Organization’s Environmental Burden of Disease models estimate the health impacts of outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollution, and water and sanitation. The Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model developed by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis integrates coal-fired power plant emissions with related human exposure to particulate matter and estimates the potential life-shortening effects. Both models yielded results consistent with the autoregressive model.

Power generation accounts for approximately half of the 50% increase in global energy demand that is projected by the International Energy Agency for the next 20 years. Coal is currently the dominant fuel used for power generation, delivering 42% of the electricity consumed worldwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

According to the study authors, identifying the health risks and benefits inherent to meeting the demand for energy will be critical to international policy development, particularly given current and possibly increasing reliance on coal for electricity. “As we negotiate energy and climate policy, teasing apart the complex relationships between energy consumption and health will help us to identify those policies that may be particularly health-promoting. This study is a starting point,” says lead author Julia M. Gohlke. Further studies are needed to examine both the social and economic drivers of the relationship between energy consumption and health.

Other authors of the paper include Reuben Thomas, Alistair Woodward, Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, Annette Prüss-Üstün, Simon Hales, and Christopher J. Portier. Support was provided in part by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Institutes of Health.

The article “Estimating the Global Public Health Implications of Electricity and Coal Consumption” will be available February 21 free of charge at https://ehponline.org/article/info:doi/10.1289/ehp.1002241.

EHP is published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. EHP is an open-access journal, and all EHP content is available free online at https://www.ehponline.org/. Brogan & Partners Convergence Marketing handles marketing and public relations for the publication and is responsible for creation and distribution of this press release.

Electricity Use, Coal Consumption, and Public Health Tags: against coal, bad health, fight big goal, health effects of coal

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