Coal-fired power stations carry heavy health costs in South Africa

Emissions from power plants causes at least 2,200 premature deaths every year, says Greenpeace

By Rajit Sengupta
Published: Thursday 11 September 2014

Photocredit: Greenpeace Africa

It is a well known fact that burning coal has an adverse effect on the environment and causes health problems. But now a Greenpeace report on South Africa says it is also killing people. The report says at least 2,200 premature deaths are caused every year due to exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emitted from the country’s 16 coal-fired power plants. South Africa generates 85 per cent of its electricity through coal. The report comes at a time Eskom, South Africa’s public power utility, has proposed to postpone compliance with new minimum emissions standards aimed at reducing the damaging health impacts of air pollution in the country.

“Air pollution emissions from thermal power plants contribute to ambient particulate matter, which is the most important environmental health risk globally, as well as to emissions of mercury, a potent neurotoxin that harms the mental development of children. Regardless of this, Eskom has refused to assess the health impacts of its proposed postponements, the majority of which are effectively exemptions,” says the report. It says the economic cost to society is estimated at 30 billion rand per year, including premature deaths from PM2.5 exposure and costs from the neurotoxic effects of mercury on children.

The India story

Even India is struggling with its coal-based power plants. The Singrauli region in Madhya Pradesh, which is often referred to as the energy capital of the country, has already been identified as a critically polluted area by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The region, which is dotted with coal mines and coal-fired thermal power plants, has an installed capacity of about 12,700 MW. The mines produce nearly 83 million tonnes of coal per annum (MTPA). Its people are extremely poor and suffer from severe pollution, including mercury poisoning. A 2012 study by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 2012 shows high levels of mercury contamination in the area. The study, which analysed water and soil samples from the area, found high levels of groundwater contamination. It also found mercury traces in the fish and animals from the area, which is consumed by the people there. “It is thus clear that the residents of the Singrauli region who were examined and were showing adverse health conditions could be suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning as the region is heavily polluted by mercury. Likely cause of the mercury pollution in the area is burning of huge amount of coal for power generation,” the CSE report said.

Judgement of the Supreme Court of India regarding occupational health services in Coal Fired Thermal Power Plants (CFTPPs) of India, 31/01/2014

Estimating the global public health implications of electricity and coal consumption

Emissions of hazardous air pollutants from coal-fired power plants

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