August 1st, 2014 Calgary Herald Science Op/Ed

Coal’s Health Effects on Albertans Explained

By Dr. Joe Vipond and Dr. Colin Soskolne

August 1st, 2014 published in the Calgary Herald

Through our work looking at the negative public health impacts of coal on Albertans’ health, we often run into skeptics.  “Show me the grave of someone who died from coal!” they demand. This is difficult, given the nature of coal’s effect on our health: the science of public health looks at things at a population, not individual, level.   So let us explain the scientific basis regarding coal’s health effects.

The statistics we quote today come from the March 2013 study “A Costly Diagnosis”, in which two different modeling techniques (one from the Canadian Medical Association, and one from Environment Canada) showed dramatic health effects:  4800 asthma days (missed work or school due to asthma), 700 hospital visits, 80 admissions, and approximately 100 deaths annually associated with coal-fired power emissions.  This results in  $300 million annually in health care costs to Albertans.   “Ah, but those are just models!” comes the cry.  But there is strong science behind these models.

There are literally thousands of scientific studies on air pollution and coal’s health effects. None of these peer-reviewed studies say coal has any good  or even neutral effect on health; instead, all incriminate coal. Let’s discuss three strong scientific papers, which demonstrate this:

First is a 1991 article by Pope examining the effects of smog on three Utah valleys:  Salt Lake (polluted, from multiple sources), Utah (polluted, from a single source, a coal-burning steel mill), and Cache (with relatively clean air). In other respects the valleys were similar. Not surprisingly, both polluted valleys had double the asthma and bronchitis hospital admission rates than the Cache Valley.  When the mill closed for 13 months due to a strike, the rates in the Utah valley plummeted, approaching that of the Cache Valley, while the Salt Lake rates remained unchanged.  When the mill reopened again, the Utah Valley rates rebounded to their previous levels.  Damning evidence of cause and effect.

The second looked at 1980s Dublin where coal had become a preferred fuel for heating homes because it was “cheap”. As such, smog became a problem in the city, and in 1990, the government banned the sale of coal to residences. This allowed for an elegant study by Clancy et al in the Lancet in 2002, comparing death rates (by any cause) between the five years prior and the five years following the ban. They adjusted for other possible factors and found that, after the ban, a decrease of 359 deaths per year was attributable to the banning of coal.  Impressive.

Those studies are pretty far from home… how about something local? One good example is by Villeneuve et al, from 2007, looking at the correlation between two air pollutants (Carbon Monoxide and Nitrous Oxides) on emergency room visits for asthma in Edmonton, AB. This study found a significant relationship between pollutant levels and emergency room visits, especially in those aged 2-4 years, and older than 75 years. A substantial amount of the NOx in the air in Edmonton comes from the coal-burning power plants west of the city.

For balance, we should mention the only study that did not show any relationship between coal-fired emissions and public health. The 2006 Wabamun study, co-written by (among others) Alberta Health and area coal plant owners, Transalta and Epcor, showed no ill effects from the local power plants. Both the government and Transalta point to this study when they try to refute “A Costly Diagnosis”.

The problem, however, is that this non-peer reviewed study is rife with scientific errors too innumerable to mention in this short op/ed.  Some of the more blatant are 1) the exclusion of children, partially because of the “likelihood of having higher exposures to particles and other chemical constituents than adults because of their activity patterns”, 2) comparing Wabuman to other high pollutant regions, such as Fort McMurray and Fort Saskatchewan, rather than to “clean” communities, such as Grand Prairie or Medicine Hat, and 3) studying only 151 volunteers, who were mostly healthy, and not those at risk (elderly, etc.). We could go on. But, it is pretty obvious that this poorly designed industry-driven study doesn’t stand up against the volumes of solid evidence in the scientific literature.

All of these studies, including the Wabamun study and our full critique of it, can be found at our website:  Feel free to browse, and discuss.

Our children, our elderly, our vulnerable asthmatics, and our cardiac patients all deserve better. Ontario decided to eliminate coal generation based on its health effects, and did so in 10 years, closing it’s last plant in April of this year.  We too in Alberta can transition to a robust electricity grid based on energy efficiency, renewables, and smart natural gas, which doesn’t negatively impact Albertans health. It’s time for Alberta to phase out coal power.



Dr. Joe Vipond is an Emergency Physician in Calgary.


Dr. Colin Soskolne is professor emeritus in epidemiology at the University of Alberta.


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