We all use electricity in our daily lives, almost without thinking about
it -- turning on the lights, listening to the radio, watching TV and using
computers. If we stopped and learned about the energy we use, we would
encounter some shocking realities about the impacts of the energy
production process on the environment and our health.
Where Our Power Comes From
With all the amazing technological advancements over the last century, one
thing that has not changed very much is our reliance on fossil fuels, in
particular, dirty coal to generate electricity. More than half of the
electricity generated in the world comes from coal. As the producer of the
largest share of world energy, coal-fired plants are also some of the
Coal-Fired Power Plants Creating Pollution
Many older coal-fired power plants have enjoyed a loophole in the Clean
Air Act, allowing them to avoid modernizing with pollution controls. As a
result, as many as 600 existing power plants are between 30-50 years old
and are up to 10 times dirtier than new power plants built today. When the
Clean Air Act was proposed around the world, this loophole was included to
get it passed because government assumed that newer plants would come into
compliance with the Clean Air Act standards and soon replace the older
more polluting plants. For a variety of reasons, including efforts to
heavily subsidize coal, this has not happened. Therefore, we are now faced
with a disproportionate amount of pollution coming from these old, dirty,
Air pollution from coal-fired power plants
Out of the entire electric industry, coal-fired power plants contribute
96% of sulfur dioxide emissions, 93% of nitrogen oxide emissions, 88% of
carbon dioxide emissions, and 99% of mercury emissions.
When nitrogen oxide (NOx) reacts with volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
and sunlight ground level ozone, or smog forms. Power plants are second
only to automobiles as the greatest source of NOx emissions. NOx emissions
from huge dirty coal plants with tall smokestacks in the midwest are often
blamed for increased smog levels in many eastern regions because smog and
its precursor pollutants are easily transported hundreds of miles downwind
from pollution sources. More than 2000 million people continue to breath
unhealthy, smog polluted air worldwide.
When inhaled, smog causes a burning of the cell wall of the lungs and air
passages. This eventually weakens the elasticity of the lungs, making them
more susceptible to infections and injury and causing asthma attacks and
other respiratory illnesses. This danger is present for
anyone who inhales smog, although children, elderly, and those with
respiratory problems are at a higher risk of developing health problems
associated with smog pollution. A University School of Medicine study
found that over time, repeated exposure to smog and other air pollutants
can cause as much damage to the lungs as smoking a pack of cigarettes a
The burning of coal emits sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx)
gases, which can form fine particles, or soot, when they react with the
atmosphere. In addition, coal-fired power plants also emit soot directly
from their smokestacks. Scientists increasingly believe soot to be the
most dangerous air pollutant, blaming it for thousands of deaths per year
worldwide, which is almost twice the number of deaths due to auto crashes.
Cutting power plant pollutants by 75% would avoid most of those deaths.
Soot causes bacterial and viral respiratory infections like pneumonia, as
well as chronic lung diseases, like asthma, that destroy lives over the
course of years. Soot from power plants triggers an estimated 1,000,000
asthma attacks worldwide every year. Bringing old plants up to modern
standards would be avoiding 1,000,000 of these attacks. In addition,
studies have found that soot may cause heart attacks and arrhythmia
(irregular heartbeat) and that the incidence of strokes and heart failure
is greater in areas with high levels of soot.
Acid rain is formed when sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx)
react with water and oxygen in the atmosphere to form acidic compounds,
most commonly sulfuric and nitric acid. These compounds can become
incorporated into natural precipitation and fall to the earth as rain or
snow. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of SO2, 66%, and
second to automobiles in NOx emissions. Acid rain destroys the ecosystems,
including streams and lakes, upsetting the delicate balance and making
them unable to support life. It also can destroy forests, killing plant
and animal life and eats away at man-made monuments and buildings,
effectively destroying our natural and historical treasures.
Power plants are one of the largest sources of toxic metal compound
pollution. Together they released more than two billion pounds of toxic
pollution in 1998, including 9 million pounds of toxic metals and metal
compounds and 1200 million pounds of dangerous acid gases. Many of these
compounds are known or suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins and can cause
acute respiratory problems, and aggravate asthma and emphysema.
One of the most dangerous toxins emitted is mercury. Coal contains trace
amounts of mercury that are released into the air when the fuel is burned
to produce electricity. The health hazard results when mercury falls to
the earth with rain, snow, and in dry particles.
Mercury is a serious toxin, and accidental high-level exposure can result
in severe nervous system damage, even death. But exposure to toxic mercury
primarily affects fetal development. In unborn children, it can influence
the development of the brain and nervous system. When infants are exposed
to toxic mercury by their mothers through breast milk, the result can be
extremely dangerous and can cause delays in walking, talking, and fine
motor skills. The primary exposure pathway for most people is through
consumption of fish with high levels of methyl mercury, the toxic form of
mercury that accumulates in fish and shellfish and the animals that eat
those fish, including humans. More than 70% of the fish advisories issued
in 2002 were for mercury contamination.
Burning fossil fuels such as coal releases carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution.
Power plants emit 40% of worlds carbon dioxide pollution, the primary
global warming pollutant. In 1999, coal-fired power plants alone released
1200.5 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (32% of the total
CO2 emissions for 1999). Currently there is 30% more CO2 in the atmosphere
than there was at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and we are well
on the way to doubling CO2 levels in the atmosphere during this century.
The 1990s were the hottest decade on record. Average global temperatures
rose one degree Fahrenheit during the last century and the latest
projections are for an average temperature increase of two to as much as
ten degrees during this century. In February 2001, the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that global warming threatens
human populations and the world's ecosystems with worsening heat waves,
floods, drought, and extreme weather and by spreading infectious diseases.
To address the problem of global warming, steps need to be taken to slash
the amount of CO2 power plants emit. We need to switch from burning coal
to cleaner burning natural gas and dramatically increase energy efficiency
and renewable wind and solar energy. (More about clean energy as a
solution to the global warming crisis)
What Can Be Done?
By the Government:
The government should expand the Clean Air Act to include protections from
old and dirty power plants and provide batter and more incentives for the
use of cleaner fuels. The government should also work towards the
replacement of the existing infrastructure with a more sustainable means
of producing green and non-conventional electricity such as Solar, wind,
geo-thermal, ocean thermal energy conservation, wave and tidal power.
Bi0-gas and Wastes-to renewable energy technology should also be
Individuals can help by conserving electricity in the home and office by:
replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs;
caulking and weather-strip doorways and windows;
installing low-flow showerheads and faucets;
keeping the furnace and air conditioner working properly;
buying energy-efficient electronics and appliances and make sure to turn
them off when they're not in use;
Raise awareness in the community by speaking with friends and neighbors
and by; writing, faxing, calling and emailing to representatives in
government about green energy promotion.