Health Effects of Gas Plants

From Global Energy Monitor

The health impacts of gas-fired power plants, although not as pronounced as those of coal plants, are still far from small. The health risks associated with gas plants are mostly the effects of emissions during the operation of the gas plant. Indirect health risks span over other stages of the energy chain (i.e., extraction, transportation, storage, etc.).

Emissions and Health Effects

Natural gas (also referred to as "methane gas" or "gas") is a mixture of fossil fuels in gaseous form, and is burned in gas turbines, engines and boilers to produce power. Gas used for power generation consists mainly of methane (generally about 85%), but can also contain propane, butane, nitrogen and other hydrocarbons.[1] Natural gas fuel causes CO2 and NOx emissions,[2] methane (CH4), PM, SOx, CO, formaldehyde, ammonia (NH3), and non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHCs).[3][4] Fully combusted methane releases water and CO2, both of which are strong greenhouse gases, but other molecules in the fuel and air within a combustion chamber can also react to form other pollutants that are released into the air. The major pollutant of gas plants is NOx.[5] There are two types of gas-fired power plants: combined cycle plants and simple cycle plants otherwise known as peaker plants. Peaker plants are less efficient and more polluting than combined cycle plants. Peaker plants can also generate more NOx and CO emissions.[6]

  • Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx): Oxides of Nitrogen, more commonly referred to as NOx is released to the atmosphere during the combustion of methane. Nitrogen in the air and trapped in the fuel reacts with Oxygen molecules during combustion, creating NO and NO2 molecules during the reaction.[1] These oxides of nitrogen are associated with a number of respiratory illnesses, such as:[7][8]
    • Inflammation of the airways
    • Reduced lung function
    • Asthma symptoms
    • Chronic bronchitis
    • Increased susceptibility to respiratory infection.
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VCOs): Although typically fairly low in gas plants with higher combustion efficiencies, gas plants also emit carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.[1] Both of these pollutants are hydrocarbons in the fuel that are not fully burned during the combustion process, and are more directly harmful to human health than fully combusted hydrocarbons (such as CO2).
    • Carbon monoxide can bind with hemoglobin in the blood, causing poor oxygen circulation in the body. This can cause fatigue, headaches, and dizziness, as well as adversely impact the health of unborn babies.[9]
    • Other VOCs have a host of related health impacts, with some compounds causing cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer.[10]
  • Ozone (O3): Although ozone is not directly emitted during combustion, NOx and VOCs released from gas plants can react with other compounds in the presence of sunlight can create ground level ozone.[11]
    • Breathing in ground level ozone, particularly at higher temperatures, has also been correlated with increased vulnerability to many respiratory illnesses.[12]
  • Particulate Matter (PM): Particulate matter (PM) refers to combinations of compounds that form particles of a certain size in the air. Although burning gas is not quite as “dirty” as burning coal, fine particulate matter PM2.5 (less than 2.5 microns in width) is still released into the atmosphere during the combustion process.[13] Additionally, NOx and VOCs that are emitted by gas plants can also combine with other compounds in the air to form PM2.5 and PM10. These “secondary” emissions are considerably more significant than the direct emissions, and have the greatest impact on human health.[14] Breathing in PM2.5 can cause:
    • Lung cancer[15]
    • Ischemic heart disease[15]
    • Increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses[15]
    • Pre-term births[13]
    • Low birth weight
    • Post neonatal mortality.[13]
    • Children and the elderly are also more susceptible to the asthma and bronchitis.[13]

Estimating the Health Impacts of Emissions from Gas Plants

A Harvard study from 2021 explores the impact of pollutants such as ammonia (NH3), NOx and PM2.5 released from burning gas in various industrial and residential settings on early mortality rates:[16]

  • An increase of 1 microgram per cubic meter of PM2.5 leads to a 1.4% increase in the likelihood of early mortality.
  • These emissions are responsible for approximately 10,000-15,000 cases of early mortality in the United States – or 21% of all annual deaths caused by air pollution from burning fuels.
  • The proportion of emissions related early mortality attributed to gas and biomass combustion is now greater than coal overall, and gas emissions from stationary sources cause more deaths than coal in 19 states in 2017.

The Health and Environmental Alliance (HEAL) also estimates that emissions from gas plants are responsible for 2,800 premature deaths in Europe, as well as more than 15,000 cases of respiratory illnesses.[15] They estimate the emissions are responsible for:

  • 17% of all lung cancer
  • 12% of ischemic heart disease
  • 33% of childhood asthma
  • 3% of all chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases
  • The cost of these health burdens, in addition to lost days of productivity amount to over 8.7 billion euros ($9.11 million USD).

Stationary Emissions Sources

As noted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, gas plants are “stationary” emissions sources– they release pollutants at a fixed location over long periods of time. The pollutants do not disperse evenly into the air immediately; based on factors such as wind and weather conditions, emissions can remain concentrated in certain areas close to gas-fired power plants.[17]

  • A study published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine showcases the effect of a 750 MW power plant in San Paolo, Italy, home to around 74000 residents.[18]
    • They find that PM10 particles in the air increased from 36.4 to 41.5 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m^3), while NOx levels were also reported to have increased from 24 to 25.3 μg/m^3.
    • This increase is correlated with an increase in hospital visits among the elderly, with the impact increasing as the residences grew closer to the power plant.
  • A study on the effect of a combined-cycle gas-fired power plant in Qom similarly compares the health outcomes of people living in a 5, 10, and 15km radius from the power plant. [19]
    • Using pollution data from different monitoring stations, as well as including controls for the effect of wind, they find that emissions have the greatest health impact in a town 2.5km north, and 7.5km west of the power station.
    • They find that the power plant causes 2 extra deaths per year.
    • Emissions from the power plant account for 21% of all cases of chronic cough and bronchitis.
    • The total health cost of the emissions from the plant are projected to be $4.7 million USD.
  • A study on the health impacts caused by air pollution from gas plants in South Korea analyzed the health benefits of an accelerated phase out of gas power.[20]
    • South Korean gas power generation is estimated to cause up to 859 premature deaths per year and 23,200 premature deaths until 2064.
    • 17,840 premature deaths could be avoided by withdrawing the plans to construct the gas plants in the pipeline, touted as the "bridge" in the energy transition, while also phasing out all gas plants in South Korea by 2035.

Socioeconomic Inequalities

The health effects of gas-fired power plants vary along the lines of country, race, and income. Globally, emissions standards, laws on air quality, and enforcement mechanisms are generally weaker in less developed countries, increasing the risk of emissions and exposure of the local communities to the emissions.[21] In addition, combined cycle technology, which is less polluting than simple cycle gas plants tends to be more expensive than peaker plants.[22] Locally, marginalized groups face higher health risks, predominantly due to closer proximity to the power plants.[23]

The fundamental problem of distributional environmental injustice is that those responsible for relatively smaller emissions face a greater proportion of the consequences.

  • A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) highlights the disparity between the levels of emissions and exposure to these emissions based on race in the US.[24]
    • By tracking the emissions associated with goods consumed by individuals, they find that Blacks are exposed to 21% more PM2.5 pollution than the average individual, and are responsible for 23% less emissions.
    • Accordingly, they face 63% more exposure than they cause
    • Non-white Hispanics also experience a disparity of 56%.
  • PSE Healthy Energy released a 2017 report detailing the difference in exposure to emissions from gas power plants by income categories.[25]
    • They find that 84% of all “peaker” gas plants operate in areas considered “most disadvantaged” in California.
    • More than 50% of these are found in communities that feature within the bottom 30% in terms of advantage.

Finally, there are chain and multiplier effects of gas-fired power plants through the effects on the environment and wildlife. For instance, Mercury pollution of water bodies may cause ingestion in humans through fish. Contaminated fish is the primary pathway for human exposure to mercury. Ingested mercury can damage the nervous system, especially in children and fetuses.[26]

Impacts on Wildlife and the Environment from Gas Plants

The impacts of the gas-fired power plant on the environment are categorized into three lifecycle stages: construction, operation & maintenance, and decommissioning.


The direct impacts of construction on the environment are landscape change, the use of natural resources, and construction waste.

  • The landscape change may involve clearing the land area for the plant site and associated infrastructure (e.g., a terminal, a pipeline, or transmission lines), potentially causing deforestation.[27]
  • Landscape change may also affect wildlife through construction activities, habitat disturbance or destruction, noise, and pollution.[27]
  • The construction phase may cause temporary or permanent impacts on soil, water, and air quality. Exposed land areas due to construction may cause soil erosion and sedimentation, washing away the soil nutrients and pollutants to nearby water bodies during storm events or spring thaws if left unmanaged.
  • Construction works may require filling or draining wetlands or affect the wetlands near the plant site.

Operation & maintenance

The most substantial impact of the operation & maintenance of a gas-fired power plant is emissions, namely sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOX), particulate matter (PM), carbon dioxide (CO2), mercury (Hg), and other pollutants.[28] The major pollutants are nitrogen oxides or NOx.[5]

  • The effects of emissions on wildlife health are likely similar to the effects on human health described above.
  • Nox pollution reduces plant biodiversity and affects the growth and survival of plants and other organisms, leading to changes in the ecosystem. Nitrogen pollution leads to the eutrophication of water bodies, altering aquatic ecosystems and causing harmful algae.[29]
  • SO2 causes acid rain, damaging vegetation, acidifying lakes, and affecting the reproduction and health of wildlife.[26][30]
  • Mercury emissions can be converted to methyl mercury by bacteria in waterways and absorbed by fish and other organisms.[26][31]
  • Ground-level ozone increases risks of disease, insects, fungus, harsh weather, and other risk factors for plants. These risks may affect the ecosystem through biodiversity loss, impaired health and growth.[29]

In addition, power plants cause avian deaths through onsite collision and electrocution with plant equipment, poisoning, and death caused by acid rain, mercury pollution, and climate change.[32] Climate change, caused by greenhouse gasses, has indirect, multiplier, and long-term effects on the environment and wildlife.[33]  

Operations of the power plant affect the water quantity and quality. Power plants use water from lakes, rivers, and municipal water utilities for plant cooling, and groundwater for plant processes.[26]

  • Power plant processes reduce water at the local stream and groundwater aquifer, negatively affecting the stream morphology, habitat, aquatic plant, and animal species, promoting the growth of algae and invasive plants.[26]
  • Discharge of polluted process water threatens local ecosystems, especially if safety mechanisms are neglected. Discharge of water with a different temperature, usually warmer after the power plant processes, can also negatively affect the ecosystem.[26]


Decommissioning a gas-fired power plant has to follow a set of procedures, including asbestos abatement, removal of fuel waste, dismantling and disposal of fuel oil storage tanks, dismantling turbine or boiler systems, and retiring pipelines and storage tanks. Each of these steps has a risk of pollution.[34]

Additional effects from other stages of the energy chain are described below:

  • In 2020, National Geographic reported on the underestimation of methane release impacts of fossil fuel extraction.[35]
    • Geologic natural release of methane was up to 40% underestimated
    • Ice core samples from pre and post industrial revolution show the differences of methane release
    • 200 teragrams of methane is released annually from fossil extraction, possibly at a rate of 2%
  • In 2019, National Geographic reported on how the fracking boom is tied to a methane spike in the Earth's atmosphere.[36]
    • Shale gas operations in the United States and Canada are linked to 50% of the overall leakages connected to the methane spike due to fracking operations leaking, venting, or flaring 2-6% of all the gas collected.
    • A 2018 Pennsylvania study found smaller and less healthy babies born near gas operations
  • A 2018 study by Penn State University studied the impacts on health from oil & gas wastewaters used to suppress dust on roads found airborne particulate matter caused respiratory and cardiovascular issues for humans and animals while also stressing vegetation. [37]
    • High salt concentrations contribute to aquatic toxicity
    • Radium was retained on the roads treated with wastewater
    • Toxins from the oil and gas wastewater leaches in the land
  • The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) documents the environmental externalities of fossil fuel use across all stages of the supply chain.[38]
  • Earth Works documents how gas processing impacts air quality when flares are used to burn off gases, gas is vented, and when equipment leaks.[39]
    • Climate and health harming pollutants which can be released during gas processing include: carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, greenhouse gases, and fine & coarse particulate matter.

Incidents at Gas Plants with impacts on Health and Environment

Incidents at the gas plants that may cause harm to health and the environment appear to be mostly explosions and fires. A historical analysis of accidents in gas and oil-fired equipment analyzed the causes. These were tube rupture, error in the ignition or reignition sequences, loss of flame in the combustion chamber, and the entrance of foreign fuel or other materials.[40]

The ENergy-related Severe Accident Database (ENSAD) recorded 19 accidents at natural gas-fired power plants as of 2020: 5 in the USA and territories, 5 in China, 3 in Azerbaijan, 2 in Canada, 1 in the UK, 1 in Russia, and 1 in Australia.[41] The data appears to be not exhaustive.

Notably, accident risks at power plants represent a small percentage of hazards across all stages of energy chains.[42]  

A few accidents at gas-fired power plants include:

  • Kleen Energy Plant (2010, USA): An explosion occurred during a natural gas purging operation at the Kleen Energy Plant in Middletown, Connecticut, USA. The incident resulted in 6 fatalities and at least 50 injuries.[43]
  • Enron power station (2001, UK): An explosion occurred in a transformer room, killing three and seriously injuring one person.[44]
  • Nuon gas-fired power plant (2012, Netherlands): An explosion occurred during repair work at the high-voltage grid, injuring eight employees.[45]
  • Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corporation's power plant (2022, Vietnam): An explosion occurred during pipeline maintenance, killing one and injuring two employees.[46]
  • Sentinel Energy Project (2017, USA): A high-pressure valve explosion killed one employee.[47]
  • Baniyas Thermal Station (2021, Syria): A fuel leakage from one of the tanks caused an oil spill the size of New York City along the Syrian coast, reaching the Cypriot shore and Turkey's northeast coast. The oil spill also directly impacted the local fisher community and their livelihood, damaging the marine ecosystem and the coastal area.[48]
  • West Tripoli power plant (2022, Libya): A fuel leakage from the tank caused an oil spill, polluting the soil and sea waters and endangering human health and the marine ecosystem.[49]


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