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Power plant soot tied to increase in deaths

October 17, 2000

By Neil Strassman
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

FORT WORTH -- Tiny pollution particles emitted by power plants are being blamed for increased illness and death in the Metroplex and other urban centers across the nation, according to a report released today by a Boston-based environmental group.

Fine soot and sulfate particles, discharged primarily from the stacks of coal-burning power plants but also from diesel vehicles and other industries, are responsible for increases in cardiac and respiratory problems, according to the report and health researchers who have studied the issue.

"Pollution from power plants poses a serious threat to public health, significantly reducing life expectancy," said Conrad Schneider, the author of the yearlong study by the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit environmental group. Many of the coal-burning power plants are old and should be forced to meet modern emission standards, he said.

TXU Gas & Electric, which owns three northeast Texas coal-burning power plants, disputed the study and said the company has state-of-the-art controls that are able to remove 99 percent of particle emissions.

"TXU has an extremely strong record reducing emissions and will continue in that effort," said Rand LaVonn, a TXU spokesman.

More than an estimated 30,000 deaths in the nation each year are caused by fine particle pollution, and in the most polluted areas the dirty air "can shave years off lives," the report said.

The Fort Worth-Dallas area ranks seventh among the nation's top 50 metropolitan areas for asthma attacks, emergency room visits, lost work days and restricted activity days, and 13th for mortality and total hospitalizations associated with small particle pollution, according to the report.

Texas ranks ninth among the states in estimated deaths caused by particulates, the study said. Kentucky, the state with the highest reliance on coal for producing electric power, ranks first in per capita deaths and Pennsylvania ranks first overall.

The morbidity analysis and health effects are based on health studies that linked changes in particle concentrations to changes in the risk of mortality.

The dangerous particles are tiny -- smaller than 2.5 micrometers, less than one- hundredth the width of a human hair -- and lodge deep in the lungs.

As with ozone and other types of air pollution, children, the elderly and those with respiratory disease suffer most from small particle pollution. Children are particularly susceptible to its effects because they breathe 50 percent more air per pound of body weight than adults and because their respiratory systems are still developing.

A study of two Massachusetts coal-burning power plants by the Harvard School of Public Health released in May found emissions from the plants contributed to premature deaths, increased hospitalization and caused other health effects, said Jonathan Levy, a Harvard research fellow and one of the study's authors.

"It appears that particles may have more impact on cardiopulmonary hospital admissions, affecting electrical control of the heart and heart rate patterns, and ozone may have more impact on respiratory admissions," Levy said.

Jeff Saitas, executive director of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the state environmental agency, said the "report is on the mark" but questioned the contribution from the Texas power plants.

"Certainly, there is a lot of fine particulate matter from coal-fired power plants. But the fine particulate in the Metroplex is locally generated and not related to these East Texas plants. Locally generated emissions are much more important," he said.

In the first year of checking local particle pollution, a monitor in Dallas exceeded the federal limit of 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air, a standard established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1997. The standard is being challenged in court.

Most of the particles form when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide gases leave the power plants and combine in the atmosphere with water vapor, ammonia or other airborne chemicals to form sulfate or nitrates.

There are six coal-burning power plants in the south central United States that produce more than 50,000 tons annually of sulfur dioxide: the three TXU plants -- one near Mount Pleasant, another at Lake Martin and the third near Fairfield -- and the others east of Houston and in Louisiana.

TXU's sulfur dioxide emissions are 28 percent below the national average and the company is reducing those rates an additional 25 percent, LaVonn said.

"There is no scientific evidence to suggest that power plants, as opposed to cars, trucks or other industries, are the main cause of these health effects," he said.

The North Texas clean air plan to help control ozone, which calls for an 88 percent reduction in the emissions of nitrogen oxides from power plants, will also help control particulate emissions, Saitas said.

The court challenge against the EPA standard for small particle pollution is expected to come before the Supreme Court this session. If the court rules that the EPA exceeded its authority in setting the standard, it could be up to Congress to restore it.

What it means to you:

Children, the elderly and those with respiratory disease could suffer adverse health effects from small pollution particles released from power plants.

Neil Strassman, (817) 390-7657
strass@star-telegram.com

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