Another air pollution wake up call

Air pollution from coal-fired power stations is impacting our health from birth to death. 

Everyone should be able to breathe clean air. But a new report published this week shows that more than 2 million Australians are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution from coal-fired power stations, causing more than 14,000 days of children and young adults experiencing asthma symptoms, 850 cases of low birth weight newborn babies, and 800 premature deaths, each year. The death toll alone is twice the exceptionally high number of deaths attributed to smoke inhalation from the recent 2019/2020 bushfire season. And this is happening every year! 

Many of these health impacts occur in regions far away from the emitting coal stations. In the report Lethal Power: How Burning Coal is Killing People in Australia, air modelling shows that air pollution from coal-fired power stations travels far beyond a power station’s location. The communities who live closest to the power station are exposed to the most amount of air pollution, but large populations in cities experience considerable pollution from power stations too. The report’s health impact estimates rely on conservative population data and only include a subset of real world pollutants, so the real health impact could be even greater than estimated. Here are some of the pollution dispersion maps for the pollutant PM2.5:  

Minimising the overall impacts of air pollution from coal-fired power stations on public health 

The health burden of coal pollution is both shocking and entirely preventable. The findings of this latest report on the health impacts of pollution from coal-fired power stations in Australia is another majorwake–up call for state governments and regulators.  

Regulation of coal-fired power stations has failed. People rely on the government to implement and enforce good regulation to protect their health. It’s time our governments protect community health by making coal-fired power stations clean up their act. 

Every extra kilogram of pollution that coal-fired power stations emit contributes to children with asthma, underweight babies, and ultimately premature death. State governments should step up and set strong emissions limits that require these power stations to install pollution control, like governments have done for other power stations around the world. 

People across Australia will experience substantial health benefits from cutting coal-fired power station pollution. A 2019 review of international evidence by experts from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies found that cutting air pollution can prevent deaths within weeks. Researchers discovered that the health benefits of clean air are “almost immediate and substantial” and stretch into the long term, saving billions of dollars. The review examined the evidence for the reduction of illness after levels of toxic air were reduced. It showed dramatic reductions in children with asthma, heart attacks and the number of low-birthweight babies. 

These findings highlight the critical need for governments to control air pollution from coal-fired power stations immediately.

What state governments must do to respond to these findings: 

  1. Set strong health-based national air pollution standards. 
  2. Expand air quality monitoring to residential areas exposed to air pollution from coal-fired power stations to monitor licence compliance and measure the health risk to communities. 
  3. Finalise clean air strategies in Victoria and NSW, with measures to reduce pollution from major sources like coal-fired power stations as close to zero as possible. 
  4. Set strong stack emission limits for coal-fired power stations in line with international standards, requiring operators to install continuous stack monitoring and best practice pollution controls that reduce toxic air pollution by more than 85 percent. 
Source: Greenpeace, Lethal Power: How Coal is Killing People in Australia 
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