Environment Maryland Research and Policy Center
Particulate matter from power plants is a serious health threat. Better monitoring of particulate matter emissions from coal-fired power plants in Maryland and proper enforcement of emission standards would help to reduce health-damaging pollution.
Power plants release particulate matter, or soot—tiny particles that are too small to see and that can be inhaled deep into the lungs, where they cause health problems.
Particulate matter can suppress immune function, cause cancer and worsen cardiovascular disease and impair children’s lung development.
Very fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, has the greatest health impacts.
Particulate matter pollution from coal-fired power plants in Maryland causes an estimated 560 premature deaths, 21,000 asthma attacks and 350 pediatric emergency room admissions each year.
Coal-fired power plants release more particulate matter pollution than do other fossil-fuel plants, and a large portion of that pollution is PM2.5.
Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) are pollutants that can react to form particulate matter. Coal-fired power plants emitted 93% of NOx and 99% of SO2 released from electricity generation in Maryland in 2004.
Approximately 21 to 44% of the particulate matter pollution released from coal-fired power plants is PM2.5.
Particulate matter pollution is dangerously high in 11 of Maryland’s 23 counties, including six that are home to the state’s major coal-fired power plants.
Despite the health risks of particulate matter, power plants in Maryland currently do not measure their particulate matter emissions. Instead of tracking emissions and requiring power plants to meet the state’s standards for particulate matter, power plants are required to monitor for “opacity” of their emissions.
Maryland’s standard for opacity does not guarantee that the state’s standard for particulate matter pollution will be met. The opacity standard allows emissions to spike once an hour, allowing power plants to emit more particulate matter than they should be allowed to emit under state regulations.
Opacity is a poor measure of particulate matter pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that specific particulate matter levels cannot be determined from a given level of opacity.
An additional problem with particulate matter pollution in Maryland is that many coal-fired power plants have not been complying with the already inadequate opacity standard. For example, data from Brandon Shores show that there were at least 62 events from January 2005 through December 2006 in which the plant exceeded opacity limits.
To protect public health from particulate matter pollution, Maryland should require all coal-fired power plants to measure the particulate matter coming out of smokestacks, thus making it possible for the state to fully enforce its standards for particulate matter, rather than relying on the inadequate and inaccurate opacity standards. Doing so would enable the state to ensure that unsafe levels of particulate pollution are not permitted to harm public health.