Kim Perrotta is Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE)
A month ago the Financial Post published a commentary entitled “They keep saying shutting down coal will make us healthier, so how come there’s no evidence of it?” written by Warren Kindzierski of the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. It seems a sad statement of our times that this article, which muddies the waters with incomplete facts and misleading information about coal plants, air pollution and human health, was published in the middle of an important debate about policies aimed at supporting the phase-out coal plants Canada-wide by 2030. The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment feels strongly that publication of the article was irresponsible.
In his article, Kindzierski maintains that coal plants are not a major contributor of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), the air pollutant that has been most clearly and consistently linked to chronic heart and lung diseases as well as acute health impacts. Kindzierski refers readers to several of his own studies, one of which contains a graph that identifies coal combustion as a small direct contributor of ultra-fine particles in Alberta’s air. He fails to explain, however, that coal plants are one of the most important sources of sulphur dioxide (SO2), the gaseous air pollutant that is transformed in the air into secondary sulphates, the most significant source of ultra-fine particles and the most worrisome portion of PM2.5. A large contribution of secondary sulphate is clearly depicted in the paper‘s graph.
In 2014, coal-fired power plants were estimated to be responsible for 40% of the SO2 emitted in all of Alberta and 60% of the SO2 emitted in the Edmonton Region. In other words, coal plants were the largest source of SO2 that is transformed into the secondary sulphates that contribute most significantly to air levels of ultra fine particles and PM2.5 in Alberta.
Kindzierski, in his article, then goes on to challenge the view that air pollutants other than PM2.5 and ground level ozone are harmful to human health, and even calls into question the health evidence associated with PM2.5. Thousands of studies have been directed at the acute and chronic health impacts associated with air pollution over several decades. In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) reassessed the health literature on air pollution and found, among many other things, stronger evidence that short- and long-term exposure to PM2.5 increases the risk of mortality and morbidity particularly for cardiovascular effects; stronger evidence that short-term exposures to ozone can have negative effects on a range of pulmonary and vascular health-relevant end-points; new evidence that short- and long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can increase the risk of morbidity and mortality, mainly for respiratory outcomes; and additional evidence that exposure to SO2 may contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory mortality and morbidity and asthma symptoms in children. These findings are well known and well accepted by public health, environmental, and medical professionals around the world.
In 2012, using the Air Quality Benefits Assessment Tool (AQBAT) developed by Health Canada, Environment Canada estimated that improved air quality resulting from the current coal regulations would prevent about 994 premature deaths and 860 hospital admissions or emergency room visits between 2015 and 2035. Avoiding these health outcomes was valued at $4.9 billion. In 2016, the Pembina Institute extrapolated these results to determine the additional health benefits associated with a 2030 coal plant phase-out in Canada. It found that a 2030 phase-out date would nearly double the health benefits associated with the existing coal regulations, preventing an additional 1,008 premature deaths and 871 hospital admissions or emergency room visits between 2015 and 2035. These additional health benefits were valued at nearly $5 billion.
It is clear to us: a 2030 Canada-wide phase-out of coal-fired power plants is a public policy that will produce many direct public health benefits for Canadian while simultaneously helping us to meet our commitments under the Paris Climate Change Agreement. There is no basis for casting doubt on the existing – overwhelming – evidence in support of this policy.
Editor’s note: A version of this article was previously published on the CAPE blog on 7 March 2017