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Deadly particulates

Gero Rueter / nhApril 8, 2013

Particulates from coal combustion are a serious health hazard. A study commissioned by Greenpeace warns of this fatal danger from coal-fired power plants.

Image: picture-alliance/Andreas Frank

It's a study that made headlines: Some 33,000 years of life are lost every year in Germany and neighboring countries due to particulate matter emitted by coal-fired power plants in Germany. That's according to a study released recently by the Institute for Energy Economics and the Rational Use of Energy, of Stuttgart University. This translates into about 3,100 premature deaths every year.

Particulate matter does indeed cause chronic bronchitis, asthma, cardiovascular disease and cancer, when microscopically small particles are inhaled, entering the lungs and thus the bloodstream. Such particles can be directly released during the process of coal combustion. But the majority forms later in the air - through chemical reaction, as one of the authors of the Greenpeace study explained in an interview with DW.

"Sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) released through combustion react with ammonia to become ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate," said Rainer Friedrich, a professor from Stuttgart University. "That's how we get particulate matter," he added. Agricultural fertilizers are responsible for the largest share of ammonia in the atmosphere.

Traffic and agriculture

Using emissions data collected by the European Environment Agency, the researchers calculated and modeled the chemical reactions that happen in the air, as well as the resulting pollution to which the European population is exposed. They also considered the results of the broadest and best-known studies previously addressing mortality risks linked with particulate matter.

Deutschland Wissenschaft Umwelt Rainer Friedrich
Rainer Friedrich from Stuttgart University explains the risks caused by particulate matter emissionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Rainer Friedrich said that all particulate matter emissions in Germany combined cause some 28,000 cases of premature death every year. Coal accounts for around 10 percent of particulate matter-related cases of premature mortality and disease. Road and sea traffic account for 23 percent, industrial processes account for 13 percent, and other combustion - such as wooden stoves - account for another 6 percent.

But agriculture is responsible for the largest share of such cases of diseases and mortality, at some 40 percent. That's because fertilization releases ammonia, which is required for the atmospheric chemical reactions in the first place.

Not everybody feels the effects of particulates, however. "There are people who are particularly sensitive and who die earlier than if they hadn't breathed in particulate matter," Friedrich said, adding that life expectancy can be reduced by as much as 10 years. "And then there are those who aren't affected by particulate pollution at all."

Need for awareness

Friedrich called particulate pollution the most harmful existing environmental factor, and wants to see pollution reduced as much as possible. "In many developing countries families live in huts and cook on an open fire. Levels of indoor pollution there need to be reduced urgently," he said.

Schweröl Feinstaub Schiff Asthma
Particulate pollution can cause diseases like asthmaImage: Fotolia/uwimages

Friedrich said the EU Commission was heading in the right direction by tightening air pollution control in Europe by law "bit by bit." But he also insisted that when setting particulate matter standards, it is important not to "focus on short-term pollution, but rather on long-term levels."

Particulate matter can indeed cause disease, a representative from VGB Power-Tech - the European technical association for power and heat generation - admitted in an interview with DW.

But Christoph Wesselmann, the association's spokesman, stressed that coal-power stations only contributed a few percent to the total emissions of particulate matter in Germany. In addition, said Wesselmann, smokestacks at coal-fired power plants reach high enough into the sky to broadly distribute particulate matter in order to eliminate health danger.

Greenpeace demands phase-out

Environmental organization Greenpeace wants the coal industry and politicians to act now, and phase out coal-generated electricity by the year 2040. "To avoid cases of mortality and disease, politicians urgently need to put an end to coal for good," said Gerald Neubauer, an energy expert with Greenpeace.

He added that for the time being, all coal power stations ought to be equipped with the best filter technology to reduce pollutant emissions.