Sulphuric Shadows

Invisible assailants, 
fine as dust, 
ride the winds –  
unseen marauders 
from the fiery throats  
of soot-stained cathedrals. 
Cities, cloaked 
in greying shrouds, 
breathe in  
their legacy of progress – 
the hearts  
and lungs  
of diligent drones 
bearing silent witness 
to every 
choking trace. 
A trail of echoes 
carried in the breeze, 
whispers of lives  
lost too soon – 
unveiling truths  
more rancid  
than the caustic scent 
that clings  
to the air. 
A fight  
not just  
for breath,  
but life  


This poem is inspired by recent research, which has found that particulate pollution from coal is associated with double the risk of mortality than from other sources. 

Fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, is a mixture of tiny particles in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. Its sources include vehicle emissions, industrial processes, and coal power plants, also known as Electricity Generating Units (or EGUs). When people breathe in PM2.5, it can lead to serious health issues like heart and lung diseases, exacerbating existing conditions and increasing the risk of premature death. Consequently, policymakers are focused on regulating coal EGUs to mitigate their impact on air quality, thereby improving public health and addressing climate change concerns. 

This research focuses on the health risks associated with PM2.5 emissions from coal-fired power plants in the United States. By examining the fine particulate matter specifically linked to the sulphur dioxide emissions of these plants, termed “coal PM2.5”, the study offers a detailed analysis of its impact. The researchers used data from 480 coal EGUs and analysed Medicare death records over a period spanning from 1999 to 2020. This encompassed an impressive 650 million person-years, providing a comprehensive dataset. The findings are alarming: exposure to coal PM2.5 is linked to a mortality risk more than double that of exposure to PM2.5 from all sources. This resulted in approximately 460,000 deaths, accounting for a significant proportion of PM2.5-related deaths among Medicare recipients. The study not only quantifies the deadly impact of coal PM2.5 but also visualises the contribution of individual power plants to this mortality risk. This research underlines the importance of stringent regulations on coal EGUs to protect public health. 

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