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Emissions from power plants responsible for premature deaths, finds study

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Toxic emissions from power plants in India and China are choking the air, finds a new collaborative study by researchers from the USA, India and China. The study, published in the journal Environment International, has detailed the health risks posed by these emissions and their impacts on the mortality and life expectancy of people living in both the countries.

Electricity has become an integral part of our lives. From our tiny gadgets to the numerous industries, all run on electricity. Power plants generate electric power from different energy sources like coal, gas, and oil, which not only power our lives but also spew a broad range of hazardous pollutants, including particulate matter. Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of tiny particles and droplets in the air consisting of metals, dust, and organic compounds.

The researchers of the current study focused on understanding how the emissions from the power plants are contributing towards the rise in the level of a type of particulate matter called PM2.5. PM2.5 is a tiny atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometres—about 3% the thickness of human hair. It can penetrate into our lungs and impair their function. There are many studies that associate PM2.5 with premature deaths from lung cancer, pulmonary, and heart diseases. The current study measured the annual mean concentration of PM2.5 using a state-of-the-art model called WRF-Chem (Weather Research Forecasting model coupled with Chemistry), a model for the investigation of air quality.

The outcome of the study is alarming as it indicates that the pollutants are reducing our average life expectancy. The years of life lost (YLL) is a measurement of premature mortality and indicates the average years a person would have lived if he or she had not died prematurely. The researchers calculated that if we can eliminate the emissions from the power plants, we would be able to reduce 15 and 11 million years of life lost annually in China and India respectively.

The alarming findings of the study can guide policymakers attempting to identify efficient mitigation strategies to curtail pollution by particulate matter. “Priorities in upgrading existing power generating technologies should be given to Shandong, Henan, and Sichuan provinces in China, and Uttar Pradesh state in India due to their dominant contributions to the current health risks”, say the authors, proposing a few measures to address this problem.