Managing Local and Global Environmental and Human Health Impacts

Health Impacts of Coal-based Energy Generation in India

This project aims to better understand the cumulative health impacts associated with toxic pollutant emissions from coal-fired power plants, including both traditional air pollutants and a suite of heavy metals.

Project Title

Managing Local and Global Environmental and Human Health Impacts

Pollution from coal-fired power plants is a global concern for both greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous air pollutants. The largest growth in global emissions from this sector is presently occurring in India.

Project Summary

Coal-fired power generation accounts for approximately 70 percent of India’s energy demands and is presently increasing at a rate of 3.5 percent per year to meet the needs of a growing population of more than 1.3 billion individuals. Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel source and is a globally important contributor to long-range air pollution. However, most Indian plants lack even basic pollution control technology. This project tests the hypothesis that health impacts attributed to coal-fired power plants have been substantially underestimated because they do not include damages associated with toxic heavy metal exposures, such as lead, arsenic, and mercury, known to be neurotoxicants, carcinogens, and immunotoxicants.

Atmospheric deposition of heavy metals released during coal combustion and disposal of fly ash contaminates local drinking water, rice paddies, and aquatic ecosystems used to farm or capture fish. This project combines field measurements, modeling, and exposure analysis in two Indian cities that have large residential communities living next to coal-fired power plants. Results will be used to scale estimated health impacts associated with heavy metal exposure to the national level. These national level impacts will then be quantitatively compared to those from traditional air pollutants using modeling data and constraints from satellite observations. This project will provide the first estimates of cumulative health damages attributable to coal combustion in India.

Partner Affiliations in India

India Institute of Technology (IIT), Hyderabad

Principal Investigators

  • E. S.

    Elsie Sunderland

    Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering, Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

  • A.Q.

    Asif Qureshi

    Assistant Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Hyderabad