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Don’t overlook the health benefits of EPA’s coal plant rule

The Colstrip Steam Electric Station is a coal-burning power plant in in Colstrip, Mont. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

The focus of the Obama Administration's plan to cut carbon pollution by 30 percent over 2005 levels by 2030 is, rightfully, the impact it will have on climate change. But let's not overlook the significant effects on public health that Monday's sweeping proposal would have.

The American Lung Association, citing EPA estimates, says the plan would  "prevent up to 4,000 premature deaths and 100,000 asthma attacks" in its first year, and "prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks in 2030."

Why? The culprits in power plant emissions are chemicals such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury, which contribute to lung disease, heart attacks and asthma.

In their story on the proposal, my colleagues Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson cite a study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Syracuse University Center for Health and the Global Environment, "which found that a carbon limit on existing plants would reduce these facilities’ sulfur dioxide and mercury emissions by up to 27 percent and their nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 22 percent by 2020."

Let's also note that the EPA's estimate of a 25 percent reduction in fine particles -- soot, in common parlance -- will also help, a lot. As I noted in this post last month, particles smaller than 10 microns (one-seventh the diameter of a human hair) can work their way deep into lung tissue. Particles smaller than 0.1 microns can pass through the lungs and into the blood stream.

How dangerous is that? Chronic exposure to particle pollution has been linked to slowed lung function growth in children and teenagers; significant damage to the small airways of the lungs; increased risk of dying from lung cancer; increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease; and increased risk of lower birth weight and infant mortality.

In one study of 545 U.S. counties between 2000 and 2007, "researchers found that people had approximately four months added to their life expectancy on average due to cleaner air. Women and people who lived in urban and densely populated counties benefited the most."

Another study of six U.S. cities from 1974 to 2009 estimated that 34,000 premature deaths a year could be prevented by reducing annual levels of particle pollution.

Lenny Bernstein covers health and medicine. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.



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Lenny Bernstein · June 2, 2014

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