Health Effects of Gas Plants

From Global Energy Monitor

The health impacts of living around gas-fired power plants, although not as pronounced as that of coal plants, are still far from small. Broadly speaking, the main health problems associated with gas plants have to do with how emissions from extracting and using gas contribute greatly to worsening air quality.

Combustion

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] 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.

  • Oxides on 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:[2]
    • Asthma symptoms in children
    • 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.[3]
    • Other VOCs have a host of related health impacts, with some compounds causing cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer.[4]
  • 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.[5]
    • Breathing in ground level ozone, particularly at higher temperatures, has also been correlated with increased vulnerability to many respiratory illnesses.[6]
  • 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.[7] 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.[8] Breathing in PM2.5 can cause:
    • Lung cancer[9]
    • Ischemic heart disease[9]
    • Increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses[9]
    • Pre-term births[7]
    • Low birth weight
    • Post neonatal mortality.[7]
    • Children and the elderly are also more susceptible to the asthma and bronchitis.[7]

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.[10]

  • They estimate that 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.[9] 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.[11]

  • 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.[12]
    • 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. [13]
    • 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.

Unjust Emissions

With this in mind, it becomes important to consider the distribution of the impacts of gas plant emissions across various social demographics. 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.[14]
    • 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.[15]
    • 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.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Environmental Protection Agency. "Natural Gas Combustion" (PDF). EPA. Retrieved Jun 17th, 2022. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  2. Queensland;, c=AU; o=The State of. "Nitrogen oxides | Air pollutants". www.qld.gov.au. Retrieved 2022-06-17.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  3. "Carbon Monoxide & Health | California Air Resources Board". ww2.arb.ca.gov. Retrieved 2022-06-17.
  4. "Volatile Organic Compounds". www.lung.org. Retrieved 2022-06-17.
  5. US EPA, OAR (2015-05-29). "Ground-level Ozone Basics". www.epa.gov. Retrieved 2022-06-17.
  6. US EPA, OAR (2015-06-05). "Health Effects of Ozone Pollution". www.epa.gov. Retrieved 2022-06-17.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 "Fine Particles (PM 2.5) Questions and Answers". www.health.ny.gov. Retrieved 2022-06-17.
  8. "No, Natural Gas Power Plants Are Not Clean". The Equation. 2018-11-09. Retrieved 2022-06-17.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Health and Environmental Alliance (May 18th, 2022). "False fix: the hidden health impacts of Europe's fossil gas dependency". HEAL. Retrieved Jun 17th, 2022. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  10. "Negative impacts of burning natural gas and biomass have surpassed coal generation in many states". C-CHANGE | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 2021-05-05. Retrieved 2022-06-17.
  11. "No, Natural Gas Power Plants Are Not Clean". The Equation. 2018-11-09. Retrieved 2022-06-17.
  12. Di Caula, Agostino (Oct 24th, 2011). "Emergency visits and hospital admissions in aged people living close to a gas-fired power plant". European Journal of Internal Medicine. Retrieved Jun 17th, 2022. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  13. R, Fouladi Fard; K, Naddafi; M, Yunesian; R, Nabizadeh Nodehi; Mh, Dehghani; Ms, Hassanvand (2016 Oct). "The assessment of health impacts and external costs of natural gas-fired power plant of Qom". Environmental science and pollution research international. PMID 27488708. Retrieved 2022-06-17. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  14. W. Tessum, Christopher (Mar 11th, 2019). "Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial–ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure". Proceedings of the National Academy of Science – via PNAS. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  15. "Natural gas power plants in California's disadvantaged communities" (PDF). PSE Healthy Energy. Apr, 2017. Retrieved Jun 21st, 2022. line feed character in |title= at position 28 (help); Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)