Coal: Decommissioning benefits the health

Up to 25 percent fewer premature births in the neighborhood after closure

If coal-fired power plants are shut down, the number of premature births in their environment drops. © Danicek / thinkstock
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Positive effect: Not only does the climate benefit when old coal-fired power stations are shut down. Also, the health and fertility of local residents improves measurably, as suggested by two studies from California. The number of premature births in the vicinity of eight power plants fell there by 20 to 25 percent, after they were shut down. In addition, more children were born alive, as the researchers report.

The decommissioning of old coal-fired power plants is the subject of intense debate, especially in Germany. For it is precisely these power plants emit extra carbon dioxide in terms of their electricity production and thus continue to heat climate change. A large part of the world's CO2 emissions is therefore attributable to the use of coal today. Britain has demonstrated in recent years that a carbon leakage and switching to less CO2-intensive technologies can advance climate protection.

What happens if the air pollution disappears?

But a coal extract not only benefits the climate. Joan Casey of the University of California at Berkeley and her colleagues wanted to know what impact the closure of coal-fired power plants has on the health of local residents. "Most people are investigating air pollution and the negative impact of power plants, " said Casey. "But we wanted to shed light on the other side: what happens if this air pollution goes away?"

For their study, the researchers analyzed data on premature births and births among people living in the vicinity of eight coal-fired power plants in California. Because these power plants were all decommissioned between 2010 and 2011, the scientists were able to directly compare the health data from the two years prior to closure with those of the following year.

Up to 25 percent fewer premature births

The result: significantly fewer children were born prematurely in the vicinity of the eight power plants after decommissioning. The number of premature births dropped in the five-kilometer radius of seven to only 5.1 percent, as the researchers report. That's a decrease of 20 to 25 percent, more than the scientists expected, they report. Women who lived between five and ten kilometers away from the power plants also lost their premature birth rate, albeit less clearly. display

Prematures are not fully developed at birth - their brains, too, are immature. Photodisc-rbma / thinkstock

The decrease in premature births after power plant abandonment remained intact even as researchers investigated other factors such as maternal age, socioeconomic status, educational attainment or ethnicity Parents involved. For comparison, they also looked at birth data over the same period at eight other power plants that had not been shut down.

Immediately positive effect

"We were pleased to finally have good news about the environment and health, " says Casey. In their view, these results demonstrate that the decommissioning of old coal-fired power plants can lead to immediate improvements in the health of local residents. From previous studies it is known that increased air pollution can increase the risk of pregnancy complications and premature births.

"Casey and her colleagues have shown that decommissioning older coal-fired power plants can significantly reduce premature births, " commented Pauline Mendola of the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in an accompanying article. "It may now be time to take our children's health as an incentive to finally reduce the main sources of air pollution. Their lives depend on it. "

More births after closure

The researchers found similar positive effects in a second study. In this study, they examined fertility - the number of children born alive - in the vicinity of coal and oil power stations before and after their decommissioning. Here, too, there were changes: The number of live births increased measurably after closure of the plants, as the scientists report.

Which of the coal-fired power plants in detail emitted air pollutants are responsible for these effects, the scientists of both studies, however, have not investigated. But it is well known that coal-fired power stations can emit a whole range of harmful substances, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, lead and organic compounds such as benzene. (American Journal of Epidemiology, Environmental Health, 2018)

(University of California - Berkeley, 23.05.2018 - NPO)