Pollution standards exist only for ambient air quality and not for individual power plants, says report

Emissions from coal-fired power plants is taking a heavy toll on human life across large parts of India. In 2011-2012, a first-of-its-kind study in the country estimates it resulted in a whopping 80,000 to 1,15,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to a total PM10 (particulate matter) pollution.

Titled ‘Coal Kills — An Assessment of Death and Disease caused by India’s dirtiest energy source,’ by Urban Emissions.info and Greenpeace India, with support from Conservation Action Trust (CAT) by Sarath K. Guttikunda and Puja Jawahar, the study says emissions from coal-fired power are responsible for a large mortality and morbidity burden on human health.

While comprehensive studies of health impacts caused by particulate air pollution attributable to coal power plants have been carried out in the U.S. and parts of Europe, such data is hard to come by in India, the authors note. With approximately 210 gigawatts (GW), India is the fifth largest generator of electricity in the world. At present, 66 per cent of this power generation capacity is from coal. The 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) includes an addition of 76 GW and the 13th Five Year Plan (2017-2022) includes 93 GW, most of which is coal based.

In 2011-12, 111 coal-fired power plants with a total generation capacity of 121 GW, consumed 503 million tonnes of coal, and generated an estimated 580 ktonnes (one ktonnes = 1000 tonnes) of particulates with diameter less than 2.5 micrograms, 2100 ktonnes of sulphur dioxides, 2,000 ktonnes of nitrogen oxides, 1100 ktonnes of carbon monoxide, 100 ktonnes of volatile organic compounds and 665 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Using a conservative value of Rs. 2,000,000 ($40,000) per life lost, the premature mortality estimates from this study would result in a health cost of Rs. 16,000 to 23,000 crore ($3.2 to 4.6 billion) annually.

The largest impact of emissions is over Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Indo-Gangetic plain, and most of central-east India. Besides the emissions from the stack, fugitive dust from coal-handling units and ash ponds (later the disposal from the plants) is of concern, particularly given the expected increase in coal-fired power plants.

The study pegs child mortality under five at 10,000 with a health cost of Rs. 2,100 crore. In addition, 625 million people have respiratory symptoms with a health cost of Rs. 6,200 crore and about 170,000 suffer from chronic bronchitis, 8.4 million have chest discomforts and 20.9 million have asthma attacks. About 9,00,000 people make emergency room visits while 160 million have restricted activity days.

Demographically, adverse impacts are especially severe for the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease, the study says.Most notable of the health impacts resulting in premature deaths include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, cerebrovascular disease, ischemic heart disease, and cancers of trachea, bronchitis, and lung. Of all the pollutants, the public health concerns in India are focused on particulate matter (PM) that contributes to a host of respiratory and cardiopulmonary ailments and increasing the risk of premature death, the study points out.

Authors suggest the way forward is to revise the emission standards for coal power plants for particulates and introduce new emission standards for other pollutants, introduce continuous monitoring at the plant stacks, such that the data is in the public domain in real time and enforce the standards with improved impact assessment methods with human health as the primary indicator. A business as usual scenario will not do and the analysis shows that aggressive pollution control regulations were necessary.