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The health burden of fine particle pollution from electricity generation in NSW

21 Nov 2018

This report estimates the health burden of air pollution from individual coal-fired power stations in NSW. It is significant new research made possible by recent studies of particle characterisation and atmospheric transport of pollution.

The effects of air pollution on human health have been studied and known about for many decades, and the list of health problems to which air pollution contributes continues to grow in tandem with research. This list now includes heart disease, stroke, asthma attacks, low birth weight of babies, lung cancer and type 2 diabetes. Research has also demonstrated that reducing air pollution, even if exposure levels are already low, leads to better health.

The form of pollution that has the strongest effect on health is fine particles (PM2.5) and one of the major sources of PM2.5 in the Sydney Greater Metropolitan region is burning coal for electricity.

There are five coal-fired power stations in NSW – Bayswater and Liddell in the Upper Hunter Valley, Eraring and Vales Point on the Central Coast, and Mount Piper near Lithgow. This study examines the health burden from premature death, the incidence of low birth weight for babies, and new cases of type 2 diabetes that are attributable to PM2.5 air pollution exposure from these power stations. Air pollution from the five NSW power stations is estimated to lead to 279 deaths or 2,614 ‘Years of Life Lost’ every year for people aged 30 to 99. Each year, this pollution also causes 233 babies to be born weighing less than 2,500 g and causes 361 people who would not otherwise develop type 2 diabetes to develop this disease.

Eraring and Vales Point on the NSW Central Coast make the largest contribution to the health burden from power generation, since prevailing weather patterns are most likely to carry pollutants from these sources into the Sydney basin where the largest population resides.

Based on the current expected closure date of the NSW power stations, it is estimated that 3,429 additional deaths will occur in NSW between the present day and the closure of the last station.

It should be noted that this analysis only focuses on three health outcomes, and only on PM2.5 pollution (including secondary particles generated from sulfur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) pollution), so the full health impacts of power station pollution are even higher than stated here.

Australia has benefitted from the introduction of vehicle emissions standards brought in during the 1970s which have been progressively tightened to the current standards based on Euro. We would not allow the cars manufactured in the 1970s to be sold today. Fortunately, most of them are now off the road.

The coal-fired power stations built in the 1970s to 1990s, on the other hand, are still operating. Two of the five power stations have been required to upgrade from electrostatic precipitators to bag filters to catch primary particles, while the other three had this as original equipment. None of the power stations uses post-combustion capture of SO2, which is the main driver of secondary fine particles that lead to air pollutionrelated health problems.

The continued operation of all the coal-fired generators in NSW imposes a substantial health burden that could be alleviated by imposing stricter licensing conditions for operation that would require post-combustion capture of SO2 and NOx, or by bringing forward closure of plants where this is uneconomic.

The objective of this report is to estimate the health impact of emissions from current electricity generation so that the community better understands what they are being exposed to, and so that decision makers can include health implications of sources of generation in planning for future electricity supply.

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