Executive Director of the Health and Environment Alliance and Coordinator of CHE’s Climate Change and Health Working Group
European coal-fired power plants are causing 18,200 premature deaths and serious illnesses that cost the population up to €43 billion each year, say health experts in a new report released today, titled The Unpaid Health Bill—How coal power plants make us sick. The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) also expresses concerns that dirty emissions from coal are contributing to climate change, which itself will create more costly public health problems—especially amongst the most vulnerable groups—the young and elderly. Despite this double threat, the use of coal as a power source is on the rise in Europe. Coal use is projected to rise throughout 2013 which is, ironically, the EU’s designated Year of Clean Air. Health experts at HEAL are now urging governments to put a stop to building new coal plants in Europe and abandon coal altogether by 2040.
In October 2011, over 500 health and security experts, including medical associations, leading medical research institutes and public health organisations, called on governments to ban the building of new coal-fired power plants without Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology, and to phase out the operation of existing coal-fired plants, starting with lignite plants due to their most harmful effects on health. Last year at the UN climate talks medical organisations petitioned negotiators to recognise that worldwide millions of deaths each year have been linked to air pollution that occurs as a result of burning coal.
As the “first ever economic assessment of the health costs associated with air pollution from coal power plants in Europe”, this report highlights evidence on how exposure to these air pollutants affects the lungs and the heart. Effects include chronic respiratory diseases, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer; and cardiovascular diseases, such as myocardial infarctions, congestive heart failure, ischemic heart disease and heart arrhythmias. Acute effects include respiratory symptoms, such as chest tightness and coughing, as well as exacerbated asthma attacks. Children, older people and patients with an underlying condition are more susceptible to these effects. Children are particularly susceptible to air pollutants, in part because they breathe more air in relation to their body weight and spend more time outside, but also due to the immaturity of their immune and enzyme systems and their still-developing airways. In addition, coal power plants are the largest source for mercury emissions in Europe, a heavy metal that is well known to affect brain development in children.
The report features statements from leading health advocates, medical experts and policy makers across Europe on how coal is harming our health and what we can collectively do to remedy this situation. I welcome conversation on this issue to help us frame a future CHE partnership call.