Study Shows Coal Particle Pollution the Worst

A report from NYU’s Langone Medical Center shows that particle pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is significantly more dangerous to human health than pollution from other sources:

The investigators found that—pound for pound—particles from coal burning contribute about five times more to the risk of death from heart disease than other air pollution particles of the same size—less than one ten-thousandth of an inch in diameter (known as PM 2.5).

In the Roanoke region, our coalition and other health groups have become more concerned about PM 2.5 as a risk to human health.  This is in part because more of our energy in the region is generated from coal, and while those power plants may not lie directly in the Roanoke Valley, air patterns can bring those pollutants into the valley, where they collect and contribute to air quality issues.

In the past, ground level ozone – or smog – has been the primarily air quality challenge for our citizens.  As ozone pollution has seen significant reductions, though, concern about PM 2.5 has grown.  This is for two reasons:

  1. A primary catalyst for ozone is heat; so, while it can be a problem during the summer, it’s not a year round air quality challenge in the same way PM 2.5 is.  In fact, in some places PM 2.5 is a bigger challenge in the winter because wood burning stoves and furnaces release particle pollution and can see heavy use in the colder months.
  2. Tailpipe emissions from vehicles in the valley also give off PM 2.5.  Because of our topography, vehicle emissions generated here tend to stay here – including what’s generated by big trucks as they take I-81 through the valley.

While there have been some recent successes in terms of coal-burning energy sources with the closing of the Glen Lyn power plant, the more we learn of PM 2.5 and its varied health impact, the more vigilant we need to be about its sources and ways to mitigate its effect.

As always, there’s a lot we can do as citizens to affect this.  Anything you do to reduce energy consumption will also reduce PM 2.5 emissions, so there’s a double-impact of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that affect us globally, and particle pollution that impacts us local.  Driving less and biking, walking, or taking transit helps reduce vehicle emissions that get trapped in the valley.  And, of course, taking appropriate measures to weatherize your home can both reduce the energy needed to keep it comfortable, as well as reduce the amount of outside air that might be bringing pollutants into the house.

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