A critical review of health risk assessments of exposure to emissions from coal-fired power stations in South Africa
Keywords:health impact, coal-fired power stations, exposure-response function, electrification
Emissions from coal-fired power stations increase the incidence of respiratory, cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary diseases and contribute to premature deaths. Wildly varying estimates of the magnitude of these health impacts have been published, however. This paper investigates the reasons for the large discrepancies calculated in five comprehensive health risk assessments of South African coal-fired power station emissions. We review the approaches and input data used by the studies. We also evaluate the exposure-response functions (which relate the pollution concentration to which the population is exposed, to the increase in health risk) used by each study and pay specific attention to whether the exposure-response functions are relevant to the South African context. Health risks are under-estimated in studies that only consider impacts in industrialised areas, or assume high counterfactual concentrations. Health risks are probably over-estimated, however, in other studies which use linear or exponential exposure-response functions that are not applicable in areas where exposure levels are much higher (such as solid fuel-using communities). A more accurate estimate of health effects would be obtained by applying integrated exposure-response functions to quantify health risks at actual exposure levels, and then apportioning the health effects relative to the contribution made by each source to total exposure levels. A fair assessment of the health risk of South Africa’s older coal-fired power stations should also weigh the health costs of the emissions against the health benefits of electricity use in lower income households.
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