The burning of coal by power plants and industry pollutes the air, forcing many governments to implement mitigation measures and encourage cleaner forms of energy. Now a new study in ACS ‘ Environmental science and technology reports that in China indoor air pollution from residential coal burning causes a disproportionate number of premature deaths from exposure to tiny inhalable pollutants called PM2.5.
In China, coal remains the largest source of energy, although recent mitigation measures have replaced some coal-fired power plants with oil or natural gas power plants. In addition, many coal-fired power stations and industrial boilers have installed equipment that reduces emissions. However, some households continue to use charcoal for heating and cooking, especially in rural areas, and the health impacts of this indoor PM2.5 exposure versus other forms of indoor and outdoor exposure are largely unknown. Therefore, Shu Tao and his colleagues wanted to quantify the health risks associated with exposure to indoor and outdoor particles.2.5 of coal used in the energy, industrial and residential sectors in China from 1974 to 2014.
The researchers compiled data on coal use by power plants, industry, and rural and urban homes over a 40-year period. Using atmospheric chemical transport and statistical models, they calculated outdoor and indoor PM2.5 levels. Next, the team used exposure response functions – mathematical relationships that calculate the health effects resulting from specific exposures – to estimate premature deaths from five diseases associated with PM.2.5, including lung cancer and heart disease. From 1974 to 2014, the contribution of residential domestic use of coal to all PM2.5 exposure decreased in urban populations but remained stable in rural populations. Researchers calculated that in 2014, residential coal accounted for 2.9% of total energy consumption in China but 34% of premature deaths associated with PM2.5. The number of premature deaths caused by unit coal consumption in the residential sector was 40 times higher than in the energy and industrial sectors. These results indicate that efforts to reduce residential coal use should be at the center of future air pollution mitigation actions in China, the researchers said.
The authors acknowledge funding from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the National Foundation of Natural Sciences of China.
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