Carbon Pollution Standards Can Be a Breath of Fresh Air: Americans' Health Will Improve, Thanks to Big Cuts in Pollutants

A new report out Tuesday, by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Syracuse University, examines the benefits that carbon pollution standards for power plants, like the ones President Obama’s EPA is set to propose on Monday, might have for Americans’ health.

Here is the powerful news: The “stronger the standards,” the researchers write, “the greater and more widespread the benefits will be for people and for the environment.” Importantly, residents of states in the Ohio River Valley—Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Indiana—and coal-dependent Western states such as Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and Idaho, are those whose health and surroundings stand to benefit most from the new standards. Other big-winner areas include Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas; Charleston and Kansas City, Missouri; Kansas City, Kansas; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. For people living in these places and millions more Americans, the standards will literally mean a breath of fresh air.



Experts at Harvard and Syracuse universities estimate that carbon pollution standards based on energy efficiency and clean energy can save lives and improve public health, removing more than 750,000 tons of pollutants from our air each year. This map details how such a plan could reduce summertime ozone concentrations, linked to asthma, emphysema and other respiratory problems. (map courtesy of Harvard University.)

The Harvard-Syracuse report doesn’t focus on the health benefits of curbing carbon pollution itself, though those effects, too, will be considerable. (We’re all safer and healthier with fewer storms like Hurricane Sandy and fewer life-threatening heat waves.) Rather, the report examines how limiting carbon pollution from existing power plants can lead to reductions in dangerous “co-pollutants” that pour out of power-plant smoke stacks along with carbon dioxide. These include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and mercury.

These power-plant pollutants substantially increase risks of heart attacks, asthma attacks, and life-threatening respiratory illnesses like emphysema. They also bump up our lung cancer risk. Mercury, when ingested by pregnant women, nursing mothers and kids, decreases children’s IQs and can lead to other neurological impairments that compromise their ability to function well in today’s society. Mercury also increases adults’ risk of heart disease.

This particular study focuses on the pollution reductions achievable by standards of various levels of ambition. It finds that a flexible, energy-efficiency-based plan, like the one NRDC developed in 2012 and updated this spring, will each year prevent more than 500,000 tons of power-plant co-pollutants from pouring out into our skies. (The Harvard-Syracuse project plans further reports this summer on their estimates of the number of lives to be saved and illnesses to be avoided.)

Based on the “moderate, full efficiency” scenario in our 2014 analysis, NRDC estimates that such standards will prevent somewhere between 900 and 2,300 premature deaths each year and avert more than 15,000 asthma attacks annually. They’ll avoid more than 800 emergency room visits and hospital admissions each year.

Residents of states suffering from some of the worst power-plant pollution stand to benefit the most. Their political leaders, many of whom like to rail against the EPA, should stop and take note of what power plant standards will mean for their constituents’ health.

The maps from the Harvard/Syracuse study (above, below and in the study itself), serve as an important guide to co-pollutant reductions. Check out what your community has to gain. 


This map details sulfur dioxide reductions that could result from a carbon pollution standard based on energy efficiency and clean energy. (Map courtesy of Harvard University.)

When the fossil-fuel interests opposing carbon standards talk about a “war on coal,” they neglect to mention the war coal-fired power plants have been waging on our health. Their pollution claims the lives of thousands of Americans each year. It sends little kids and seniors to emergency rooms gasping for breath, and middle-aged guys like me to the ER clutching our chests.  

Luckily for all of us, carbon pollution standards that emphasize energy efficiency and clean energy resources can protect us not just from global warming but also from the other dangers that coal-fired power plants bring.