Coal Tattoo

Coal’s impacts: New study sorts out good and bad

Studies about the costs and benefits of coal are always a topic that generates heated discussion here on Coal Tattoo (see here, here and here).

But understanding these costs and benefits is increasingly important, and whether any one particular study is perfect is less important than the fact the we’re all asking these questions and seeking good answers.

With that in mind, there’s a fascinating study out today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It’s called “Estimating the Global Public Health Implications of Electricity and Coal Consumption.”

The study starts with the notion that some serious environmental and public health problems related to contaminated water and poor sanitation improve with access to a reliable energy source. And, access to electricity also reduces in-home burning of inefficient and polluting fuels such as coal, wood and animal dung.

But, depending on how electricity is generated, new health hazards can be created, including exposure to particular matter, sulfur oxides, nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide emitted during power generation.

In this study, researchers used models to examine 40 years of data on infant mortality, life expectancy, electricity use, and coal consumption in 41 countries. They found that electricity use improved infant mortality rates, but only in countries where rates were relatively high in 1965. Also, 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.

Lead author Julia M. Gohike said:

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.