Power plant emissions cause thousands of early deaths in US, states like New York, Pennsylvania most hit

In 36 states, the majority of the health impacts are from emissions that originate in other states, shows analysis

                            Power plant emissions cause thousands of early deaths in US, states like New York, Pennsylvania most hit
(Source: Getty Images)

Air pollution from power plants kills thousands of Americans each year, and in 36 states, over half of these premature deaths are the result of emissions from other states.

More than 1,800 Pennsylvanians die every year due to air pollution from electricity generation emissions, and the number is over 900 for New Yorkers, according to a new analysis by University of Washington researchers.

The new research looks at levels of air pollution in each state that are caused by power plant emissions in each other state. The study also looks at which groups inhale more or less of the pollution from power plants. The team found that air pollution from electricity generation emissions in 2014 led to about 16,000 premature deaths in the US.

A major finding of the study is that because wind can carry pollution afar, there can be strong differences between where pollution is emitted and where it is inhaled. The analysis, the team says, shows that emissions from electricity generation do not stop at state lines - many states "imported" or "exported" pollution. 

For example, Indiana, West Virgina, and Illinois are the top three net exporters of power plant air pollution harm, meaning that each of them impacts other states much more than other states impact each of them. In contrast, New York, Virginia, and Maryland are the top three net importers of harm. Each is affected by other state's emissions more than that state impacts others, says the study published in ACS Environmental Science and Technology.

"Our data show that even if states take measures to change their own electricity production methods, what happens across state lines could dramatically affect their population", says senior author Julian Marshall, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The study was developed as part of the Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions, which was supported under an assistance agreement awarded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The researchers have also created an interactive map on deaths attributed to electricity generation emissions across the US. 

The team examined how emissions from electricity generation plants could move across the continental US. The researchers used models to map concentrations of fine particulate matter air pollution from power plants in 2014 and then overlaid this map with Census data on where people live to estimate exposures for each state and for specific demographic groups. 

"We looked at emissions from different types of power plants - including coal, natural gas, diesel and oil power plants - and modeled how the pollutants would travel based on things like wind patterns or rain. We also consider how emissions can react in the atmosphere to form fine particle air pollution. That gave us a map of pollution concentrations across the country", says lead author Maninder Thind, a UW civil and environmental engineering doctoral student. 

Thind says, "We overlaid that map with data from the census to get an estimate of where people live and how this pollution results in health impacts."
Using mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the team estimated premature deaths due to electricity generation emissions. In 2014, there were about 16,000 premature deaths. The researchers estimate that 91% of premature deaths were the result of emissions from coal-fired power plants. 

“Air pollution doesn't just come from cars on the road, generating electricity from fossil fuels also releases fine particulate matter into the air. Coal-fired power plants are major sources of air pollution. In general, fine particulate matter can lead to heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, and other diseases, and is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths each year in the US", says the study.

The number of deaths in each state varies, with Pennsylvania having the highest number, and Montana and Idaho having the lowest number, with fewer than 10 deaths each.

The amount of power plant pollution that people breathe varies with where they live. And people with different races and incomes live in different places.

On average, in the US, black Americans have the highest exposures, and non-Latino have the second highest exposures. Exposures for Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos are lower. An interactive map on deaths per 100,000 people in each group can be accessed here.

Overall, the team found that emissions affected black Americans the most, leading to about seven premature deaths per 100,000 people in that group. White non-Latino Americans were the second most affected group, with about six premature deaths per 100,000 people. Other groups averaged about four premature deaths per 100,000 people.

Exposures were higher for black and white non-Latino Americans than for other groups, and that this disparity held even after accounting for differences in income, says the study. (Getty Images)

The researchers found while lower-income communities experience more polluted air than higher-income communities, race makes a bigger difference than income. "A lot of people may expect that the disparity we see for race or ethnicity comes from an underlying difference in income. But that's not what we see. We find that differences by race or ethnicity tend to be larger than differences by income group", says co-author Christopher Tessum, a research scientist in the UW's civil and environmental engineering department. 

The analysis shows that the local context also matters. For example, exposures for Native Americans are lower than other groups if looking nationally. But in Kansas and Oklahoma, they are the most exposed group. The state with the largest inequity is Kentucky, where the most exposed are Black people. 

"We have seen in our previous research that our society is more segregated by race than by income, and now it's showing up again with air pollution from electricity generation emissions. These results can help local, state, or national governments make more informed decisions that will improve everyone's air quality and quality of life," says Marshall. 

The findings, says the team, reiterates the fact that improving air pollution not only saves lives but it can also reduce environmental and health inequalities. 

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