The UK’s coal-fired power stations are responsible for 1,600 premature deaths each year, meaning deaths that could have been avoided, according to estimates from the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).
HEAL also attributes air pollution from coal-fired plants in the UK to: 68,000 additional days of medication, 363,266 lost working days and more than a million cases of lower respiratory tract symptoms.
These figures were calculated using a system to extrapolate health impacts from air pollution data from 2009. This model, which is based on the scientifically-proven relationship between air pollution and the risk of death or disease, is also used by the EU to analyse impact of air pollution.
The cost of these theoretical premature deaths and illnesses as a result of the UK’s coal power fleet amounts to £1.1 to £3.1bn, HEAL estimates.
According to an European Environment Agency (EEA) league table of the worst polluters by health impacts, the UK’s Drax plant ranks seven and Longannet ranks eleven, causing combined estimated health impacts of up to around £1.9bn.
Some of this cost to human health and impact on the public purse occurs within the UK, and some of it occurs in neighbouring countries in a manifestation of the ‘trans-boundary effect’, which means air pollution travels across borders. The most affected countries from UK emissions are Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, followed by Sweden, France and Germany to a lesser extent.
This swings both ways, with France (10-12%), Germany (5-10%) and others contributing to air pollution in the UK, according to a recent analysis by EEA. See the map below showing the effect of the emissions from nine lignite-powered plants in Germany travelling to the UK and other countries - in terms of the estimated years of life lost.
Air pollution has been recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s cancer research agency as a leading environmental cause of cancer [PDF].
The WHO says chronic exposure to particulate matter in the air, which makes up air pollution, can contribute to the risk of lung cancer, and mortality rates in cities with high levels of pollution are 15-20% more than cleaner cities. For example, in London, the risk of developing lung cancer goes up by an additional 7 to15% with exposure to air pollution – regardless of whether a person smokes or not – according to the HEAL analysis.
Air pollution is also implicated in heart disease and chronic respiratory tract conditions.
Outdoor air pollution is made up of a complex mixture of various organic and non-organic matter, which includes nitrates, sulphate and carbon. Burning coal is associated with high sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions, which react to form particulate matter in the air, along with dust or other primary source substances.
The air pollution data used by HEAL comes from a database of combustion plants held by the EEA, and included nitrate oxides, sulphur dioxide and dust.
HEAL's analysis focusing on the impacts in the UK follows a Europe-wide study in March, which found more than 18,000 deaths in the EU could be linked to coal power plants in 2009. This summer a study by the University of Stuttgart and Greenpeace found coal plants currently operating around Europe could have contributed towards 22,000 premature deaths in 2010.