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Air pollution is one of the world's leading causes for ill healthX. In order to stay healthy, we need the air we breathe to be clean. But right now, coal-burning power stations are fuelling big problems for Australia's health.  

In the process of producing energy, coal power stations produce large amounts of toxic substances like mercury, sulfur dioxide and other particle pollution. When dangerous amounts of these pollutants get into our air, even small amounts can make people sick.X

As well as emitting air pollution, coal power stations produce toxic waste in the form of coal ash. The transport and storage of this toxic waste product can also pose a serious risk to communities. Australia’s coal-burning power stations produce 10-12 million tonnes of toxic coal ash every yearX, with more than 400 million tonnes of coal ash stored in ash dumps across the country.

A growing body of research has tabulated increased health risks from coal-fired power stations:

  • An Australian Conservation Foundation report recently found that of the five most polluted postal areas in Australia, coal-fired power stations are the largest emitters in three.X
  • The effects of air pollution on human health have been studied for many decades, and the list of health problems to which air pollution contributes is growing as more research is done. This list now includes heart disease, stroke, asthma attacks, low birth weight of babies, lung cancer and type 2 diabetes. A recent epidemiological study estimated air pollution from five coal-burning power stations in New South Wales causes hundreds of premature deaths every year.In 2018, Doctors for the Environment Australia linked abnormally low birth weights in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley to the air emissions produced by the region’s three large coal-fired power stations.X
  • For some pollutants, Australia’s limits are less strict than the World Health Organisation's standardX. In 2019, the Nature Conservation Council of NSW obtained and released industry air pollution data from NSW’s Vales Point power station, showing sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution exceeded World Health Organisation standards on six occasions.X
  • Toxic coal ash waste can pose a risk to communities and local waterways. In NSW, the Hunter Community Environment Centre found elevated levels of selenium and cadmium near ash dump overflow points in Lake MacquarieX. Around 200,000 people live near Lake Macquarie and the lake is popular for fishing and recreation amongst locals and tourists alike.
  • Health impacts can be felt far beyond the immediate area around a power station, because air and water pollution can travel a long way. Due to population density and prevailing winds, Greater Sydney is the most impacted region from pollution that the Central Coast and Hunter Valley power stations produceX.
  • Health risks can persist after a power station has closed. In Port Augusta, South Australia, the waste from a former coal-fired power station was held in a nearby dam. When strong winds hit the area, toxic ash became airborne and impacted on the local community. According to Port Augusta council’s chief executive John Banks, health services were “stretched to the limit and local pharmacies ran out of asthma medication… [and] there is no doubt lives were put at risk”.X
  • Tighter controls can go some way towards improving health outcomes. There are pollution control measures that power stations could install to curb their emissions - but without any strict regulations requiring it, many power station owners don’t do so voluntarilyX. Tighter regulations could make a bit difference: after putting strict air pollution limits in place, 74 cities in China have reduced the presence of dangerous PM2.5 particulates by almost a third.X The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has published a review of research showing that children’s health improves when exposure to chemicals from coal-burning power stations was decreased.

For the sake of our health, closing coal-burning power stations — and properly remediating their sites — could be the best choice for our future. The sooner we move away from coal power, the better the health outcomes will be.

  1. State of Global Air Report 2019. Health Effects Institute Special Report. Boston, MA. 

  2. National Pollutant Inventory Database. 
  3. Unearthing Australia’s toxic coal ash legacy. Environmental Justice Australia, 1 July 2019

  4. The Dirty Truth: Australia’s most polluted postcodes. Australian Conservation Foundation. 16 November 2018. 
  5. Mannucci, PM. Airborne pollution and cardiovascular disease: burden and cause of an epidemic. European Heart Journal vol 34(17), 2013. 

  6. The health burden of fine particle pollution from electricity generation in NSW, Dr Ben Ewald report for Environmental Justice Australia. November 2018. 

  7. Submission on the Victorian brown coal-fired power stations licence reviews. Doctors for the Environment, February 2018. 

  8. Global SO2 Emission Hotspot Database, Ranking the World's Worst Sources of SO2 Pollution. See page 8. Greenpeace Environment Trust, August 2019. 
  9. Note that the Australian standard and the World Health Organisation standards differ. For more, see Nature Conservation Council, Media Release: Vales Point Air Pollution Exceeds World Health Organisation Pollution Standards Six Times. 21 August 2019. 
  10. Out of the Ashes. Hunter Community Environment Centre, March 11 2019. 

  11. The health burden of fine particle pollution from electricity generation in NSW, Dr Ben Ewald report for Environmental Justice Australia. November 2018. 
  12. Port Augusta feared power station pollution put lives at risk. The Advertiser / News Corp. 22 March 2019. 

  13. Read more at: NSW EPA gives coal-fired power stations a licence to harm communities. Environmental Justice Australia. January 30 2019. 

  14. State of Global Air Report 2019. Health Effects Institute Special Report. Boston, MA. See page 9. 

  15. Impact of Coal-fired Power Plant Emissions on Children’s Health: A Systematic Review of the Epidemiological Literature, April 2019, Amster, E. & Lew Levy, C.

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