What impact do coal-fired power stations have on our health?

Air pollution is one of the world’s leading causes of ill health.X Here in Australia, coal-fired power is a big part of the problem.

As well as carbon pollution, coal-fired power stations produce toxic substances. These are released in the air, and can have significant impacts on human health. Pollutants from burning coal are associated with the leading causes of death in Australia: heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and lung cancer.X

The pollutants released include:

  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2 ): a major air pollutant that can act as a powerful respiratory irritant, causing asthma, chronic lung disease, and lung damage.X
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx ): even low level exposure to NOx can irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs, possibly leading to coughing, shortness of breath, tiredness and nausea. High exposure can cause lung damage.X
  • Mercury (Hg): is highly toxic to the nervous system. Exposure can cause permanent damage to the brain and the kidneys.X
  • Fine particulate matter (PM2.5 ): is particulate matter of a very small size — roughly 40 fine particles could be placed across a single human hair. Particles this small can be drawn deep into the lungs and beyond. The impact varies depending on the chemical make-up of the particles, but PM2.5 has been associated with heart disease, lung cancer, and increased mortality. Burning coal is Australia’s major source of fine particulate pollution.X

Air emissions: pollutants from coal-burning power stations in 2018-19

Looking at the data state by state, coal-fired power stations are a significant source of these air pollutants in each state.

Health impacts can be felt far beyond the immediate area around a power station. Air and water pollution can travel a long way: because of population density and prevailing winds, Greater Sydney is the most impacted region from pollution the five Central Coast and Hunter Valley power stations produce.X

Pollutants reported by coal-burning power stations in 2018-19

PowerStation Status State
kgs released into air
kgs released into air
kgs released into air
kgs released into air

It’s clear the contribution coal-burning power stations make to toxic air pollution is significant — but the National Pollution Inventory data on these emissions is not as accurate as it needs to be. It’s been reported that several power stations estimate, rather than continuously measure, their emissions of these toxic substances,X and there are cases of inconsistent monitoring requirements between stations.X

In order to tackle the impacts that coal-fired power stations are having on local areas, we need to see far stricter standards for coal-fired power stations, a national body responsible for monitoring air pollution, and better monitoring and reporting practices.