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Children Grow Healthier After Coal Plant Shut

Associated Press in Bangkok – Updated on Jul 16, 2008 – SCMP

Children born after the closure of a coal-burning plant on the mainland had 60 per cent fewer developmental problems, a new American study says, giving ammunition to those who argue the nation should embrace cleaner sources of energy.

The study in the peer-reviewed Environmental Health Perspectives journal found that after the coal plant was shut in Tongliang, northwest of Chongqing , pregnant mothers living in the area had far less exposure to pollutants. Their children showed significantly fewer delays in developing motor skills, such as muscle co-ordination, by the age of two.

“This study provides direct evidence that the Chinese government’s action to shut down a polluting power plant had measurable benefits on the development of children,” said Frederica Perera, lead author of the study and director of the Columbia Centre for Children’s Environmental Health in New York.

“These findings have major implications for environmental health and energy policy in China and elsewhere.”

The study tested the development of two groups of about 100 children, one group born before the Tongliang coal plant’s closure in 2004 and the other born after it was shut.

Barbara Finamore – director of the Natural Resources Defence Council’s China programme, whose group helped researchers identify a site – said she hoped the findings would persuade authorities to weigh the affordability of coal against the health costs.

“Coal is much cheaper than the alternatives. But when you factor in the cost of coal to children’s health, it changes the equation,” she said.

“With the one-child policy, children are one of China’s most precious resources. They cannot afford to be raising a new generation of children with serious developmental difficulties.”

But Peter Sly, who heads the World Health Organisation’s Collaborating Centre for Research on Children’s Environmental Health and is based in Australia, was more cautious about the findings.

He said it was an interesting study that showed how reducing exposure to pollutants during gestation could improve health outcomes for children, especially brain development. But he said the results did not have implications for “modern, coal-fired power stations” on the mainland.

The Tongliang coal plant did not have pollution control equipment to limit the emission of toxins that typically include carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter.

“My personal opinion is that modern power stations may be better, but we don’t know how much better,” said Mr Sly.

The mainland relies on coal for three-quarters of its electricity and has been slow to switch to cleaner options such as wind, solar and hydropower.

The study found that mothers living near the coal-fired plant breathed in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are produced when coal is burned, and were passed on to each baby through the mother’s placenta. Researchers tested the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the fetal umbilical cord blood of the children in the two groups.

Researchers found the group that was born after the power plant had closed had 40 per cent lower levels of the contaminant in the cord blood.

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