WASHINGTON — New carbon emissions standards that were proposed last year for coal-fired power plants in the United States would substantially improve human health, according to a new study, and prevent 3,500 premature deaths per year.
The study, led by researchers at Harvard and Syracuse universities, used modeling to predict the effect on human health of changes to national carbon standards for power plants. The researchers calculated several scenarios, using data from the Census Bureau and detailed maps of the 2,400 fossil-fuel-fired power plants across the country.
The scenario with the biggest health benefit was the one that most closely resembled the changes that the Environmental Protection Agency proposed last June. Under that plan, reductions in carbon emissions for the plants would be set by states and would include improvements to energy efficiency of, for example, air conditioners, refrigerators, and power grids.
Carbon emissions trap heat in the atmosphere, which contributes to a warming planet. Coal-fired power plants also produce a number of other pollutants, such as soot and ozone, which are directly linked to diseases such as asthma and lung disease.
Researchers calculated that the changes in the EPA rule could also prevent 1,000 heart attacks each year and hospitalizations from air-pollution-related illness.
More energy efficiency reduces emissions not only of carbon but also of other pollutants that create soot and smog, which would have the biggest effect on health, the researchers said.
The study was published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change. The largest declines in pollution — and consequent benefits to health — would happen in the states around the Ohio River Valley, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, which have some of the highest levels of emissions, researchers said.
Charles T. Driscoll, a professor of environmental systems engineering at Syracuse University who was the lead author of the paper, said research began about a year before the EPA proposed the carbon reduction plan. It was a coincidence that one of the researchers’ scenarios so closely resembled the federal proposal.
“The idea is to inform the federal and state governments that your state and federal policy matters,” he said. “Air quality is something everybody relates to and everyone experiences.”
The study comes as President Obama plans to unveil by midsummer a set of finalized climate change rules to curb planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from US power plants, a move that he hopes will stand as a cornerstone of his environmental legacy.
The climate rules would cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.