28 February 2018

Concern for NSW coal communities after US study finds coal-burning power stations pose risks to unborn children

The Nature Conservation Council is calling on the Berejiklian government to conduct a public inquiry into the health impacts of coal-fired power stations following a recent US study that linked emissions to premature births. [1]

The council is also calling on state and federal governments to set tougher pollution standards that protect people living near coal-fired power stations.

The study by Yang and Chou found the closure of the Portland Generating Plant in New Jersey slashed the risk of pre-term births in nearby New Jersey by a whopping 28% and reduced the risk of low-birthweight babies by 15%.

The authors attributed the change to reduced sulphur dioxide pollution:

"To the best of our knowledge, our study is the first to show fetal health improvement as a result of shutting down a large air polluter leading to a drastic reduction of SO2 emission."

Critically, the power plant in the Portland Generating Plant emitted less SO2 (27,600 t/yr) than most NSW coal-fired power stations:

  • Bayswater (Hunter Valley) = 63,500 t/yr
  • Liddell (Hunter Valley) = 30,800 t/yr
  • Eraring (Central Coast) = 29,000 t/yr

Vales Point (16,000 t/yr) and Mt Piper (23,000 t/yr) emit slightly less than the New Jersey plant.

“Our governments should also set strong pollution limits that meet WHO standards, and replace these dirty facilities with renewables by 2030,” Nature Conservation Council CEO Kate Smolski said.

“For the sake of public health and for our climate, the Berejiklian government must conduct a public inquiry into the health impacts of the state’s coal-fired power stations. 

“Billion-dollar corporations like AGL, Origin and Energy Australia have been dumping millions of tonnes of pollution into the air we breathe.

“State and federal governments in Australia have failed to set and enforce safe pollution standards that protect people living near coal-fired power stations.

“It’s time our governments set emissions standards that meet World Health Organisation standards and forced these companies clean up their act. 

“The Australian standard for sulphur dioxide is 11 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s and almost three time higher than limits set in the United States.

“Air quality in some parts of the Hunter exceed sulphur pollution limits that led to the closure of the power station in New Jersey. The people of NSW deserve better.”

[1] The Impact of Environmental Regulation on Fetal Health: Evidence from the Shutdown of a Coal-

Fired Power Plant Located Upwind of New Jersey. Download here.  


In NSW, the Hunter-New England and the Nepean Blue Mountains (including Lithgow) Local Health District have some of the highest pre-term births (i.e. <37 weeks gestation) in the state.

Region Local Health District

Rate (%)


Versus NSW

Southern NSW




Northern NSW




Sydney (central)




Northern Sydney




Western Sydney




Central Coast




NSW average




Hunter– New England



19% higher

Nepean Blue Mountains (includes Lithgow)



28% higher

Source: http://www.healthstats.nsw.gov.au/Indicator/mab_bth_gage/mab_bth_gage_lhn_snap

While many variables affect premature death rates and people’s exposure to SO2 (diesel is another source), the Yang study suggests there are significant health gains on offer by slashing SO2 emissions from our power stations or by shutting them.

SO2 can be removed using scrubbers (also known as Flue Gas Desulpherisation), a technology that is standard in many parts of the world, including the USA.



Air pollutionClimate and energyCoal and gas

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