Coal-fired power plants linked to low birth weights in downwind communities

If there is a war on coal, it’s a war for health.

Pollution from coal plants has been linked to low birth weights. CREDIT: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
Pollution from coal plants has been linked to low birth weights. CREDIT: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

A new study on the birth weight of babies born in areas downwind of a coal-fired power plant has reached a troubling conclusion: Babies in the study area were 50 percent more likely to have low birth weight than their counterparts in non-affected areas.

“Really, this is a big effect,” study author Muzhe Yang, an associate professor of economics at Lehigh University, said in a statement.

The study covered 52,000 full-term births between 2004 and 2010 in four New Jersey counties that are immediately downwind of Pennsylvania’s now-shuttered Portland Generating Station. The plant was already identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as the “sole reason” the area has sulfur dioxide levels that exceed EPA standards. The plant closed in 2014.

“We have this very unique situation where the source is uniquely identified,” Yang told the Washington Post.

Sulfur dioxide has been linked to respiratory illnesses such as asthma. In addition, it can react with other molecules to form particulate matter, another air quality concern, as well as acid rain and haze. No one is immune from the effects, which can disproportionately impact children and elderly people.

Researchers pointed out that they only looked at the birth weight of full-term, successful pregnancies. “As a result, our study could understate the true health impact of prenatal exposure to power plant emissions for all fetuses,” the study says.

Low birth weight has been correlated with increased rates of infant mortality. It is also correlated with adverse health impacts later in life, such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

The study’s findings are a direct rebuke to opponents of the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which was released in 2008 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2014. The rule limits pollution from power plants in cases where the pollution is travelling downwind and causing air quality concerns in neighboring states. After the rule was updated last year, five states again sued to overturn it.

Current EPA head Scott Pruitt, formerly the attorney general for Oklahoma, did not join the most recent suit, but he was one of 14 attorneys general — along with fossil fuel and energy companies — who challenged the initial rule.

In January, six states filed a motion to protect the new version of the rule.

“The Trump administration has signaled its desire to roll back federal environmental protections, including those that protect states from out-of-state polluters,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who joined the filing, said at the time. “New York has already put in place some of the most effective air quality protections in the country, but we have no control over dirty air that pours in from other states.”

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump continues to claim he will bring back coal jobs — even though the coal industry is in dire financial straits, electricity suppliers are increasingly turning to natural gas and renewable energy, and both mining and burning coal are linked to public health problems.

A wide-ranging executive order signed by the president last week deliberately seeks to boost coal production and undermines efforts to quantify the impacts of pollution on society.

But experts generally agree that the coal industry’s woes are not limited to efforts to reduce pollution and address climate change.

The rapidly decreasing cost of renewable energy and the boom in natural gas production have played major roles in the decrease in coal-fired power plants. And the decrease has been dramatic: According to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, since 2010, 251 coal plants have been retired or announced they will close. Roughly speaking, that’s the electricity for nearly 60 million homes.

And Trump’s order will not likely reverse this trend.

“Many of the companies retiring their coal assets reiterated to S&P Global Market Intelligence that Trump’s March 28 executive order would not change those plans,” energy news service SNL reported.

Over the past eight years, coal generation has fallen dramatically, being replaced by natural gas and renewables.
Over the past eight years, coal generation has fallen dramatically, being replaced by natural gas and renewables.