The health effects of coal power – and why it’s time for Alberta to phase it out

Through our work looking at the negative public health impacts of coal on Albertans’ health, we often run into skeptics. “Show me the grave of someone who died from coal!” they demand. This is difficult, given the nature of coal’s effect on our health: the science of public health looks at things at a population, not individual, level. So let us explain the scientific basis regarding coal’s health effects.

The statistics we quote today come from the March 2013 study “A Costly Diagnosis,” in which two different modeling techniques (one from the Canadian Medical Association, and one from Environment Canada) showed dramatic health effects:  4,800 asthma days (missed work or school due to asthma), 700 hospital visits, 80 admissions and approximately 100 deaths annually associated with coal-fired power emissions.  This results in  $300 million annually in health care costs to Albertans. “Ah, but those are just models!” comes the cry. But there is strong science behind these models.

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There are literally thousands of scientific studies on air pollution and coal’s health effects. None of these peer-reviewed studies say coal has any good or even neutral effect on health; instead, all incriminate coal. Let’s discuss three strong scientific papers, which demonstrate this:

First is a 1991 article by Pope examining the effects of smog on three Utah valleys: Salt Lake (polluted, from multiple sources), Utah (polluted, from a single source, a coal-burning steel mill), and Cache (with relatively clean air). In other respects the valleys were similar. Not surprisingly, both polluted valleys had double the asthma and bronchitis hospital admission rates than the Cache Valley. When the mill closed for 13 months due to a strike, the rates in the Utah valley plummeted, approaching that of the Cache Valley, while the Salt Lake rates remained unchanged.  When the mill reopened again, the Utah Valley rates rebounded to their previous levels. Damning evidence of cause and effect.

The second looked at 1980s Dublin where coal had become a preferred fuel for heating homes because it was “cheap.” As such, smog became a problem in the city, and in 1990, the government banned the sale of coal to residences. This allowed for an elegant study by Clancy et al in the Lancet in 2002, comparing death rates (by any cause) between the five years prior and the five years following the ban. They adjusted for other possible factors and found that, after the ban, a decrease of 359 deaths per year was attributable to the banning of coal. Impressive.

Those studies are pretty far from home… how about something local? One good example is by Villeneuve et al, from 2007, looking at the correlation between two air pollutants (Carbon Monoxide and Nitrous Oxides) on emergency room visits for asthma in Edmonton. This study found a significant relationship between pollutant levels and emergency room visits, especially in those aged 2-4 years, and older than 75 years. A substantial amount of the NOx in the air in Edmonton comes from the coal-burning power plants west of the city.

For balance, we should mention the only study that did not show any relationship between coal-fired emissions and public health. The 2006 Wabamun study, co-written by (among others) Alberta Health and area coal plant owners, Transalta and Epcor, showed no ill effects from the local power plants. Both the government and Transalta point to this study when they try to refute “A Costly Diagnosis.”

The problem, however, is that this non-peer reviewed study is rife with scientific errors too innumerable to mention in this short op/ed.  Some of the more blatant are 1) the exclusion of children, partially because of the “likelihood of having higher exposures to particles and other chemical constituents than adults because of their activity patterns,” 2) comparing Wabuman to other high pollutant regions, such as Fort McMurray and Fort Saskatchewan, rather than to “clean” communities, such as Grand Prairie or Medicine Hat, and 3) studying only 151 volunteers, who were mostly healthy, and not those at risk (elderly, etc.). We could go on. But it is pretty obvious that this poorly designed industry-driven study doesn’t stand up against the volumes of solid evidence in the scientific literature.

All of these studies, including the Wabamun study and our full critique of it, can be found at our website. Feel free to browse, and discuss.

Our children, our elderly, our vulnerable asthmatics, and our cardiac patients all deserve better. Ontario decided to eliminate coal generation based on its health effects, and did so in 10 years, closing it’s last plant in April of this year. We too in Alberta can transition to a robust electricity grid based on energy efficiency, renewables, and smart natural gas, which doesn’t negatively impact Albertans health. It’s time for Alberta to phase out coal power.

This article was originally published on July 31, 2014, in The Calgary Herald

The comments section is closed.

  • Del says:

    And to think, they are moving these coal powered mines to the Caribbean! Poor economics with minimal resources and sub standard health care systems, what will happen to the citizens I wonder..

  • Todd Reashore says:

    Just an observation from a common citizen [of Spruce Grove]: Whenst retiring from thirty-three years service from the Canadian Army, my wife and I decided on re-locating to the Edmonton area.

    One of many pluses in deciding on Spruce Grove was….from a pollution point of view, [given the westerly prevailing winds] living in western Canada seemed a a plus, in that ‘how much pollution can be coming over the Rockies [from pristine mid-northern BC] into the Edmonton area ? And then, living on the west side of Edmonton, surely must be much better [pollution wise] than living on the eastern side. Especially given all of the heavy oil centric industry there…

    Well, having moved to Spruce Grove, you can imagine our surprise and huge disappointment, in coming to the eventual realization that a coal fire hydro generator was located 40’ish kilometers to the west of us. I was obviously reticient in doing my homework.

    Personally, i find it absolutely stunning that any elected politician, any ethical provincial/municipal civil servant, or citizens themselves, would agree in allowing a coal fired plant to be located directly upwind from a major metropolitan city [Edmonton].

    I must look up into the sky, at least on a weekly basis, wondering just how much invisible garbage from Wabumun is constantly raining down on us, which I, my wife, my children, grandchildren, you and yours are breathing in.

    With such decisions, most likely made for [someones] financial gain, is it any wonder that the human race is still existing on this otherwise lovely planet ?

    Todd Reashore
    [otherwise lovely] Spruce Grove, Alberta.

  • Michelle Stirling says:

    Gentlemen, Dr. Ross McKitrick tested this ICAP model over a decade ago and found that it predicted more people died of asthma than died in total. Based on his work, the model is flawed. Pembina Institute’s report also manipulates statistics regarding emissions – in fact, as supported by Environment Canada’s, power generation makes up only 0.5% (EC) of PM2.5 emissions – in Alberta it is 0.4% – and provides enormous benefits. Dr. Vipond – I strongly reject your claim that Alberta can move off coal in a decade – using Ontario as an example is not a valid comparison. Alberta does not have Niagara Falls hydro or Ontario nuclear plants to back up the addition of renewables – whenever you add renewables to the grid, you have to add equivalent thermal or conventional hydro. I spoke with the Independent Power Producers Sco and they indicated it would cost $11.2 BILLION to move off goal to natural gas. I have also conducted a detailed survey of Alberta PM2.5 sources – there are many, especially in Edmonton, and coal-fired plants are the least of them and the most controlled, best monitored and are able to be shut down or rolled back. But wildfires in 2011 put ou 1000 times the PM2.5 of coal. There is a lot of emerging research on the long-term health effects of wildfire smoke and I find it a serious omission that your campaign does not address the full spectrum of causes. This would be like a doctor diagnosing a hip replacement requirement based on seeing a person limp – when it might just be a stone n the shoe.

  • Amol Verma says:

    Thank you for sharing your work and highlighting the importance of good science on such politically-charged issues. We recently covered a paper about Air Pollution on The Rounds Table podcast on Healthy Debate: http://healthydebate.ca/theroundstable/air-pollution-heart-failure-renal-denervation

    As you say, there is excellent science documenting the detrimental effects of air pollution on population health. The paper we discussed combined data from 35 high quality studies to show that air pollution increases heart failure exacerbations. It is unique because it shows that, not only does air pollution have long-term effects but it also causes acute problems. The authors estimated that reducing air pollution levels modestly would prevent about 8,000 heart failure hospitalizations in the US annually and could results in cost savings of US$300 million.

    This study builds on a vast literature documenting the effects of air pollution on heart attacks, lung disease, and cancer. As far as we can tell, the jury is no longer out on this issue.

    Amol Verma and Fahad Razak


Joe Vipond


Dr. Joe Vipond is an emergency doctor in Calgary, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary, and the co-founder of the Canadian Covid Society and Masks4Canada.


Colin Soskolne


Dr. Colin Soskolne is professor emeritus in epidemiology at the University of Alberta.

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