Exposure to air pollutants from power plants varies by race, income and geography

November 20, 2019

Many people take electricity for granted -- the power to turn on light with the flip of a switch, or keep food from spoiling with refrigeration. But generating electricity from fossil fuels exacts a toll on health and the environment. Scientists estimate that these power plant emissions cause tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. each year. Now, researchers report in ACS' Environmental Science & Technology that pollutant exposure varies with certain demographic factors.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fine particulate matter -- also known as PM2.5 -- is the largest environmental health risk in the U.S. Scientists have linked these air pollutants to increased death rates from cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Power plants, particularly coal-fired ones, emit PM2.5 directly, as well as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that can react with ammonia in the atmosphere to form additional PM2.5. Julian Marshall and colleagues wondered if certain demographic groups showed disparities in exposure to the harmful air pollutants.

To find out, the researchers used an air quality model to predict PM2.5 concentrations in different geographical areas across the U.S in 2014. They correlated the air quality data with location-specific information on race, income and mortality. The team estimated that in 2014, about 16,700 people in the U.S. died prematurely because of power plant emissions. At the national level, African Americans had the highest mortality rates from power-plant PM2.5 (6.6 deaths per 100,000 people), followed by white non-Latinos (5.9 deaths per 100,000 people), with lower rates for Asian Americans, Native Americans and Latinos. However, exposures for each racial/ethnic group varied by state. Estimated mortality rates from PM2.5 were higher for lower-income than higher-income households, but the differences by race were larger than those by income. Because wind can carry PM2.5 long distances from the source, health risks in many states could be attributed to out-of-state emissions. The researchers say that they hope these findings will help communities, scientists and policymakers better understand and address air pollution exposures and their disparities.
The authors acknowledge funding from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and the Center for Air, Climate, and Energy Solutions.

The paper's abstract will be available on November 20 at 8 a.m. Eastern time here: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.9b02527

The researchers have created a video about their work, which can be viewed here.

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