A Note on Coal Pollution Fatalities

Where the estimate of ten thousand premature deaths comes from


Some readers of an earlier post have complained about the provenance of an estimate that ten thousand U.S. citizens die yearly from exposure to coal pollution. A New York Times report about a new National Academy of Sciences study--the subject of my post--hadsaid that  coal and automotive pollution were  about equally responsible for causing $120 billion in economic damage each year and 20,000 deaths. But the number 20,000 (or 10,000 coal, 10,000 automotive) does not  appear in the Academy study itself, which is what prompted me to call Maureen Cropper, who co-chaired the expert panel that did the review.

I did not discuss Cropper's views in detail in my post, but she confirmed that the numbers 20,000 or 10,000  do not appear in the NAS report and said, consistent with the Times, that because 96 percent of the economic damage from coal plant pollution is attributable to premature deaths, one can in fact divide the total damage by $6 million--the value attributed to each lost life--to obtain the number of fatalities.

To put that the other way around, Cropper said in effect that estimated economic damage is based on estimated yearly premature deaths from coal pollution and from automotive pollution of about 10,000 per year each, but that those numbers are implicit, not explicit.

At least one reader of my post was surprised that sickness does not account for a larger share of estimated economic damage, and so was I, considering that hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized each year for asthma and a variety of other pulmonary disorders. Cropper said in effect that as many of those hospitalized will end up among the prematurely dead, the cost of their hospitalizations is in effect a part of the damage attributed to their deaths. But she conceded that the costs of morbidity may be somewhat under-estimated in the study.

The Energywise Newsletter

Monthly newsletter on latest news & opinion for the power & energy industry, green technology, and conservation.

About the Energywise blog

IEEE Spectrum’s energy, power, and green tech blog, featuring news and analysis about the future of energy, climate, and the smart grid.