Power Plant Air Pollution Kills 13,000 People Per Year, Coal-Fired Are Most Hazardous: ALA Report

03/15/2011 01:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The American Lung Association (ALA) recently released a new report on the dramatic health hazards surrounding coal-fired power plants.

The report, “Toxic Air: The Case For Cleaning Up Coal-Fired Power Plants,” reveals the dangers of air pollution emitted by coal plants.

One of the starkest findings in the report claims, “Particle pollution from power plants is estimated to kill approximately 13,000 people a year.”

So what's the biggest culprit?

“Coal-fired power plants that sell electricity to the grid produce more hazardous air pollution in the U.S. than any other industrial pollution sources.” According to the report details, over 386,000 tons of air pollutants are emitted from over 400 plants in the U.S. per year. Interestingly, while most of the power plants are located in the Midwest and Southeast, the entire nation is threatened by their toxic emissions.

An ALA graph shows that while pollutants such as acid gases stay in the local area, metals such as lead and arsenic travel beyond state lines, and fine particulate matter has a global impact. In other words, while for some workers the pollution may be a tradeoff for employment at a plant, other regions don’t reap the same benefits, but still pay for the costs to their health.

The report connected specific pollutants with their health effects. According to the ALA, 76% of U.S. acid gas emissions, which are known to irritate breathing passages, come from coal-fired power plants. Out of all industrial sources, these plants are also the biggest emitter of airborne mercury, which can become part of the human food chain through fish and wildlife -- high mercury levels are linked to brain damage, birth defects, and damage to the nervous system. Overall, air pollutants from coal plants can cause hearth attacks, strokes, lung cancer, birth defects, and premature death.

The American Lung Association isn’t the only group to connect coal plants with death and illness. A recent study released in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found that, due in large part to health problems, coal costs the U.S. $500 billion per year. Specifically, the study found that the health costs of cancer, lung disease, and respiratory illnesses connected to pollutant emissions totaled over $185 billion per year.

What does the American Lung Association want to come out of releasing their report? According to Charles D. Connor, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, “It’s time that we end the ‘toxic loophole’ that has allowed coal-burning power plants to operate without any federal limits on emissions of [dangerous pollutants].”

On March 16th, the EPA is required to issue a proposal on how to clean up these air pollutants. The proposal suggests that large production coal-fired plants install controls that have been shown to decrease air pollutants. The newly proposed controls are already currently used in some plants. Control technologies include scrubbers, currently used by 46% of plants, to control acid gases. Another control technology is activated carbon injection, used to control mercury, which involves blowing powder activated carbon into a flue gas to absorb pollutants -- this technology is currently used by just 13% of plants.

The EPA is finally taking steps to cut down on toxic emissions form coal-fired power plants. Yet, many people believe that there's no such thing as clean coal.