Misled by incomplete facts about effects of coal burning

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

2 thoughts on “Misled by incomplete facts about effects of coal burning

  1. Gordon Friesen

    Dear Kim,

    Canada is (or was) at the cutting edge of technology designed to eliminate the negative impact of coal power while maintaining its' numerous benefits.

    Aside from our national interests in utilizing this cheap reliable and abundant energy source, we must also seriously consider our moral contribution to the global effects of coal use.

    China and India, in their race to modernization, will never consent to forgo the benefits of coal. Nor are they able to sufficiently invest in developing the clean coal technology required to palliate the growing pollution problem they will inevitably engender.

    Therefore, even if we were to believe it is in our interests to abandon coal for our own health reasons (and that case is far from certain), we clearly have a larger duty to pioneer the next generation clean coal energy production which can then be used in the countries referenced (not to mention the numerous others not yet seriously in the modernization chain, but obviously destined to become so).

    This then, is our real choice : we can clean up our own coal problem, not by stopping, but by improving the way we burn it, and in this case, we can both profit from the continued use of coal and radically improve the pollution prospects in developing countries...


    We can espouse the absurd notion that coal usage can and must be stopped, as a matter of absolute principle, in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary (including China's stated policy that they will not even begin to review their massive coal expansion program until the '30's). That is to say, we can use (and squander) our privileged wealth in order to feel good about eliminating what is only a trivial portion of the worlds total coal consumption, and by behaving in this morally obtuse fashion, we can also guarantee enormous damage due to coal pollution all through the developing world (damage that that we could so easily prevent through adoption of the more responsible choice offered above).

    For let us recall the main point at issue:

    Our goal is to reduce harm from coal emissions.

    There is no moral imperative -- in fact there is no reason at all -- to stop burning coal, if that goal can be achieved through technological improvements of the process.

    To insist upon obstinately adopting the impossible, quasi-religious --and frankly fanatical -- policy of environmental extremism which will accept nothing but the absolute elimination of coal (when that policy is neither possible nor intrinsically desirable), would be, in my opinion, the height of irresponsibility, both to ourselves, and more importantly, to those who have not the fortune to be able to emulate our unnecessary and technologically obsolete obsessions.

    We can never expiate the sin of modernity. We can never undo the Dickensian horrors of our own historical path to industrialization. What we can do, on the other hand, is to contribute realistically to the technological solutions needed to spare other peoples, who are currently on that path in imitation of ourselves, from those self-same horrors.

    And that means the continued responsible use of coal, solving our health problems through improvement of the process, and not through an egotistical fantasy of post-industrialization (which only really means benefiting from the fruits of industrialization while relocating its’ ill effects in the territories of other less fortunate peoples who still have to work for a living) .

    No. We brought this monster into the world. And whatever might be said, we can not chase it out again. (Nor would we wish to change our history and forgo its' benefits even if we could). And yet we cannot escape the moral responsibility of containing the future depredations of that industrial creature we created.

    Our duty, then, is clear: we must “Tame the Beast”.

    And the good news, is, of course…

    we can!

    Feel the Love,

    Gordon Friesen, Montreal

  2. Infuriating that people like Warren Kindzierski can be so deceptive about such an important issue! Air pollution doesn't get enough recognition for how bad it is for our own health as well as the environment...


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