The Lung Association, Alberta & NWT was pleased to join our fellow health and environmental organizations – Pembina Institute, Asthma Society of Canada, and Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment – to draw attention to the issue of coal-fired power in Alberta with the March 26th release of the report A Costly Diagnosis – Subsidizing coal power with Albertans health. Although the body of research on the health impacts of air pollution from coal is extensive and unequivocal in its findings that there are numerous health risks associated with exposure to air pollution from coal plants, none have yet to assess the situation in Alberta.
In a survey of energy literacy by the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, only 38 per cent of Alberta business leaders and policy-makers polled could correctly identify coal as the primary fuel source for electricity generation in the province. The survey authors suggest that this result may be as much the product of wishful thinking as a lack of knowledge: the survey also found that a strong majority of those surveyed were in favour of higher energy costs for cleaner energy sources. From these responses it’s clear that we’re overdue for a closer look at our electricity system.
Using the Canadian Medical Association’s model that estimates the illnesses and economic damages of health impacts from air pollution, we assessed in the report the impacts on the health of Albertans from coal pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and mercury. These pollutants have been shown to cause respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses as well as neurological disorders in the case of mercury. With this model estimate we’ve found that each year in Alberta air pollution from coal contributes to over 4,000 severe asthma episodes annually, over 700 emergency visits for respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, and around 80 hospital admissions, while the long-term exposure to this pollution may be contributing to the premature death of 100 Albertans annually.
Our analysis reveals that the economic damages related to health from coal power air pollution in Alberta are in the range of $300 million annually. We have translated these health associated costs into a cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity produced and compared the results of this model to costs calculated from two other sources. The result is a range of health related costs from 0.7 to 2.1 ¢/kWh. While these impacts are not as severe as observed in the United States (where the damages are twice as high), or Europe (where the costs are three times as high), it is clear that greening our electricity grid will have a clear benefits for the health of Albertans.
The next steps for the co-authors of the report are to continue meetings with government stakeholders, advocating for the phasing out of coal in a faster timeline than the current federal regulations allow. The benefits of reducing our reliance on coal will not only extend to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren who, as current rules allow, will not see the last of today’s coal plants close until 2062, but will also have immediate and applicable health, social and environmental benefits for Albertans today.
By Beth Nanni, Program Specialist – Environment, The Lung Association, Alberta & NWT