Do Coal Plants Really Kill People?

Why Romney was right.


During the presidential campaign, any whiff of anti-coal sentiment was considered an election-year liability. In 2003, Gov. Romney went after a coal plant in Massachusetts for spewing air pollution and announced: “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people. And that plant, that plant kills people.” President Obama tried to stick it to him with that quote in an ad in coal-friendly Ohio. Romney, in turn, tried to bash Obama with remarks that Joe Biden made in 2007 about coal as a potential killer.

But while politicians have been busy obscuring their views on coal, public health researchers have been accumulating ever clearer data. Emissions from coal-fired power plants and other coal-burning sources have been linked to neurological and developmental deficits in children, a worsening of asthma, and cardiovascular disease and other health woes. Coal-burning is bad, bad, bad for your health—and looking ahead, the best we can hope for is that it will get marginally better.

Coal was partly responsible for two spectacular deadly smogs in the mid-20th century. In October, 1948, the small industrial town of Donora, Pa., was choked by “an acrid, yellowish gray blanket.” As former residents recalled: “I’d accidentally step off the curb and turn my ankle because I couldn’t see my feet.” The Halloween parade just looked like “shadows moving through the gloom.” In a few days, 20 people died and about 6,000 more fell ill. Similarly, in December, 1952, London was smothered in a smog so dense that “parents were advised not to risk letting their children get lost on the way to school, unless it was literally round the corner,” a resident recalled to the BBC. More than 4,000 deaths were attributed to the smog, mainly due to respiratory and cardiovascular complications. Both smogs helped catalyze clean air legislation, including the Clean Air Acts of 1963 and 1970, which expanded the government’s role in controlling pollution and helped to reduce coal emissions. These were some of the first, crucially important environmental laws on the books.

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.