Coal kills

  1. Coal kills
  2. Coal ash more radioactive than nuclear waste!
  3. Coal costs in America
  4. Coal costs in China
  5. Coal costs in Australia
  6. Comparison with Chernobyl
  7. Coal is finite and could run out in about a century, and peak well before then

1. Coal kills

Coal is one of the deadliest forms of electricity that we have ever invented, and combined with oil and gas creates deadly smog that chokes people to death. But coal even kills in first world nations that do not have as much visible smog. Invisible particulates get through our scrubbers and hang around our cities, killing thousands. Coal, oil and gas particulates kill about 2.6 million people per year worldwide. That’s over 7000 people a day, or nearly 2 Chernobyl’s a day or 650 a year! (See “Comparison with Chernobyl” below)

It’s a morbid topic, but there is even a scale called the “Death’s per Terrawatt” scale. It takes an equivalent measure of energy, the terrawatt, and measures how many people die as a result of that energy. Coal is a Chernobyl every week!


Or lets try another common graphic:


Next Big Future: Deaths per TWH by energy source
How Deadly Is Your Kilowatt? We Rank The Killer Energy Sources – Forbes
Want to kill fewer people? Go nuclear
Roar magazine
The Energy Collective shows that tobacco kills 5 million people a year, but nuclear power has probably only killed about 4000 people in its entire history!

Classic George Monbiot quote:

“….when coal goes right it kills more people than nuclear power does when it goes wrong. It kills more people every week than nuclear power has in its entire history. And that’s before we take climate change into account.”

Coal kills 30,000 Americans a year

Existing nuclear power has already saved 1.8 million lives in America.

How many lives would have been saved if we had switched from coal to nuclear power by 1970? I roughly halved the death rate till the 2000’s to account for world population growth and world coal use across the 1970 to 2000 period, and then added the ‘normal’ 2.6million deaths per year from 2000 onwards. By the end of 2015, my very rough, back-of-the-envelope guess is that we could have saved 78 million lives, or more people than were killed in World War 2!

2. Coal ash more radioactive than nuclear waste!

“The result: estimated radiation doses ingested by people living near the coal plants were equal to or higher than doses for people living around the nuclear facilities. At one extreme, the scientists estimated fly ash radiation in individuals’ bones at around 18 millirems (thousandths of a rem, a unit for measuring doses of ionizing radiation) a year. Doses for the two nuclear plants, by contrast, ranged from between three and six millirems for the same period. And when all food was grown in the area, radiation doses were 50 to 200 percent higher around the coal plants.”

The death toll from all this radiation must be catastrophic! Right? Well, no. Coal smoke is deadly, and the particulates kill millions a year worldwide. But the radiation? Not so much! It’s just one of those things we over-hype all the time!

“McBride and his co-authors estimated that individuals living near coal-fired installations are exposed to a maximum of 1.9 millirems of fly ash radiation yearly. To put these numbers in perspective, the average person encounters 360 millirems of annual “background radiation” from natural and man-made sources, including substances in Earth’s crust, cosmic rays, residue from nuclear tests and smoke detectors.

Dana Christensen, associate lab director for energy and engineering at ORNL, says that health risks from radiation in coal by-products are low. “Other risks like being hit by lightning,” he adds, “are three or four times greater than radiation-induced health effects from coal plants.” And McBride and his co-authors emphasize that other products of coal power, like emissions of acid rain–producing sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrous oxide, pose greater health risks than radiation.”

3. Coal costs in America

Is coal cheap? Not so much if you should double the electricity price to include the health costs! Who pays this cost? You can be sure it’s not the Koch brothers! (American coal barons).

“Although it is difficult to assign a cost to these numbers, estimates have suggested a 10% increase in health care costs in countries where coal makes up a significant fraction of the energy mix, like the U.S. and Europe (NAS 2010; Cohen et al., 2005; Pope et al., 2002).  These additional health costs begin to rival the total energy costs on an annual basis for the U.S. given that health care costs top $2.6 trillion, and electricity costs only exceed about $400 billion. Another way to describe this human health energy fee is that it costs about 2,000 lives per year to keep the lights on in Beijing but only about 200 lives to keep them on in New York.

Guess that’s just the cost of doing business…”

Harvard University: Coal health impacts cost America at least $300 billion every year (possibly more), the same as another war in Iraq every 6 years! What kind of person claims coal is ‘cheap’!?

Annual American health consequences of using fossil fuels
Asthma (hospital admissions) 3,020,
Pneumonia (hospital admissions) 4,040,
Asthma (emergency room visits) 7,160
Cardiovascular ills (hospital admissions) 9,720
Chronic bronchitis 18,600
Premature deaths 30,100
Acute bronchitis 59,000
Asthma attacks 603,000
Lower respiratory ills 630,000
Upper respiratory ills 679,000
Lost workdays 5.13 million
Minor restricted-activity days 26.3 million

4. Coal costs in China

Beijing is closing its last major coal power station next year in an attempt to tackle air pollution which is costing the economy more than 10% of its GDP.

Bloomberg reported that the state-owned, 845-megawatt power plant will close in 2016. Last week, another two coal-fired power stations were closed down in the Chinese capital, adding to the first plant closure in 2014. The facilities will be replaced by gas-powered plants, which produce less harmful emissions and can supply 2.6 times more electricity.

In September, a report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate found that air pollution caused by the most dangerous kind of particulate matter – known as PM 2.5 – was linked to around 1.23 million premature deaths in China in 2010, costing around 13% of GDP in lost economic activity.

5. Coal costs in Australia

“The health burden of coal in Australia due to air pollution was estimated by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering to be $2.6 billion per annum (or $13 per megawatt hour)”…..
….6. Air Pollution Economics; Health
Costs of Air Pollution in the Greater Sydney Metropolitan Region
The NSW Department of Environment and Conservation The total health costs of annual emissions of common ambient air pollutants from all sources in the GMR from 2000 to 2002 were conservatively estimated to be between $1 billion and $8.4 billion per annum. This is equivalent to between 0.4 per cent and 3.4 per cent of gross state product. [4] This cost cannot be apportioned between electricity generation & other industrial pollution and vehicular pollution but an assumption of half and half distribution would be reasonable.

6. Comparison with Chernobyl

According to UNESCAR, Chernobyl only killed 64 at the time, but it has been calculated that the extra radiation will eventually kill about 4000 people due to the longer term effects of radiation. This may be overly pessimistic because of the assumption that there is no safe level of radiation. See 2: “Linear No Threshold” on my Chernobyl page.

7. Coal is finite and could run out in about a century, and peak well before then

Our World In Data draws on the BP statistical review and shows that, as of 2020, our fossil fuel reserves are not as abundant as many might think. Mind you – we still should leave most of them in the ground due to climate change! But even if climate change were not a concern, the fact that these fossil fuels RUN OUT in the following timescales should warn us to get moving. These are R/P ratios – today’s known reserves divided by annual production. Remember that annual energy demand will increase with the global population increase and development in poorer countries. Also remember that these resources will peak and decline in production, bringing an energy crunch that much closer than their final ton or barrel. It’s time to get off fossil fuels, especially coal – now! reserves

7 Responses to Coal kills

  1. That graphic says “per watts produced” but watts are energy/time, not energy. It should be in watt-hours or joules.

  2. Eclipse Now says:

    Hi Timothy,
    both terms have their place, so it depends what the original author was saying. Technically it should probably be in Gigawatt hours or Terrawatt hours, but that graphic is from Next Big Future which referenced it from another original article, and so I can’t see the original context. It probably did the layperson thing of explaining it in how many outputs of power (instead of energy units sold) over a year. EG: If x terrawatts of nukes and y terrawatts of coal burn for a year, these are the deaths. Power by time *should* probably be expressed as energy, but again, it depends on how they were presenting it to their audience.

    • No, “deaths per watt” just doesn’t make any sense. If you produce 1 watt of energy for 1 year, or 1 watt of energy for 1 billion years, would the deaths be the same in both cases? Obviously not, The second case would have 1 billion times as many deaths, even though the wattage is the same in both cases. It’s total energy that matters, not wattage.

  3. “Coal, oil and gas particulates kill about 2.6 million people per year worldwide. ”

    It doesn’t say that in your reference. It just says “2.6 million deaths related to outdoor air pollution” and “Excessive air pollution is often a by-product of unsustainable policies in sectors such as transport, energy, waste management and industry”

    I’d like to know realistic numbers for this.

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