We can’t see it, and coroners rarely report it, but air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels prematurely kills an estimated nine million people worldwide every year.
This is not a new problem. Dirty air led to the federal Clean Air Act in 1970, which reduced airborne fine particulates by 67 percent. That lengthened American life expectancy by 1.4 years and, according to the National Resources Defense Council, continues to save 370,000 lives and prevent 189,000 hospital admissions for cardiac and respiratory illnesses annually, and produce $3.8 trillion in annual economic benefits.
Despite this success, we continue to pay a tremendous human toll for air pollution. Recent research from Harvard University and the Universities of Birmingham and Leicester estimated that 350,000 Americans still die annually due to fossil fuel combustion, nearly 1,000 daily. That puts burning fossil fuels among the leading preventable causes of death in the U.S.
Scientists continue to establish links between air pollution and the incidence of a wide and growing range of diseases: respiratory and heart diseases, cancer, and stroke. Air pollution contributes to premature birth and low birthweight, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders. Cigarettes and secondhand smoke contribute to a similar list of diseases; the difference is that we can choose not to smoke and hard-fought policies ended our exposure to secondhand smoke in public places. But we all must breathe.
Approximately 60 percent of air pollution is caused by burning fossil fuels, mostly to generate power. Despite scrubbers, many fine particles exit smokestacks, creating plumes that winds carry for miles. Counterintuitively, smaller particles – measuring just 3% of the diameter of a human hair – are most hazardous to human health. Such fine particulate matter enters deeper into the lungs and into the bloodstream.
Worse, the effect of fine particulate pollution is unevenly distributed across people and places. Fetuses and young children are more biologically and neurologically susceptible to harm. People who live close to and downwind from smokestacks and high-use roadways – often low-income persons and persons of color – experience greater exposure. Black Americans over age 65 are three times more likely than whites over age 65 to die from health problems related to such exposure, according to a report by Industrial Economics for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Air pollution is simultaneously a global and local problem.
Locally, a new report examined the health and economic impact of five power plants operated by Minnesota Power in northern Minnesota and North Dakota. Written by Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research center, it was commissioned by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Fresh Energy and the Sierra Club as part of their response to Minnesota Power’s proposed Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). All investor-owned electric companies are required by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to develop an IRP outlining future operations.
This report assembles data on the morbidity, mortality and healthcare costs to people living nearby and downwind of each Minnesota Power plant. The health and equity metrics pioneered in this report should be part of all PUC decisions, lest we forget the human toll of air pollution. Thanks to these metrics, the PUC and the public can assess the costs in lives, health, and dollars of burning fossil fuels at specific plants.
After analyzing data on five Minnesota Power plants, it finds that combustion of coal and biomass at the Hibbard Energy Center in Duluth, the most urban plant operated by Minnesota Power, “is associated with relatively high health impacts,” and “the nearby populations are disproportionately low-income and face high cumulative socioeconomic burdens.”
Half of Minnesota Power’s electricity comes from renewable sources, but it plans to burn coal and gas at Hibbard and other power plants until at least 2030.
Three thousand people live within a mile and nearly 30,000 live within three miles of Hibbard. Assuming current operations, from 2021 to 2035 Hibbard would cause an estimated 39 deaths and $437 million in excess health impacts, according to the report. These health impacts will fall disproportionately on low-income and Native populations. The healthcare costs will disproportionately burden them and all taxpayers through public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Minnesota Power should shut down Hibbard. We can encourage them. You can weigh in to the PUC on Minnesota Power’s plan (docket number 21-33) through Aug. 29.
Air pollution in India or China is hard for us to affect, but we can do more locally.
Steven S. Foldes, Ph.D., is an independent research consultant and an Adjunct Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota.