NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Canary in a Coal Mine: Infant Mortality, Property Values, and Tradeoffs Associated with Mid-20th Century Air Pollution

Karen Clay, Joshua Lewis, Edson Severnini

NBER Working Paper No. 22155
Issued in April 2016
NBER Program(s):   CH   DAE   EEE

Pollution is a common byproduct of economic activity. Although policymakers should account for both the benefits and the negative externalities of polluting activities, it is difficult to identify those who are harmed and those who benefit from them. To overcome this challenge, our paper uses a novel dataset on the mid-20th century expansion of the U.S. power grid to study the costs and the benefits of coal-fired electricity generation. The empirical analysis exploits the timing of coal-fired power plant openings and annual variation in plant-level coal consumption from 1938 to 1962, when emissions were virtually unregulated. Pollution from the burning of coal for electricity generation is shown to have quantitatively important and nonlinear effects on county-level infant mortality rates. By 1962, it was responsible for 3,500 infant deaths per year, over one death per thousand live births. These effects are even larger at lower levels of coal consumption. We also find evidence of clear tradeoffs associated with coal-fired electricity generation. For counties with low access to electricity in the baseline, increases in local power plant coal consumption reduced infant mortality and increased housing values and rental prices. For counties with near universal access to electricity in the baseline, increases in coal consumption by power plants led to higher infant mortality rates, and lower housing values and rental prices. These results highlight the importance of considering both the costs and benefits of polluting activities, and suggest that demand for policy intervention may emerge only when the negative externalities are significantly larger than the perceived benefits.

You may purchase this paper on-line in .pdf format from SSRN.com ($5) for electronic delivery.

Access to NBER Papers

You are eligible for a free download if you are a subscriber, a corporate associate of the NBER, a journalist, an employee of the U.S. federal government with a ".GOV" domain name, or a resident of nearly any developing country or transition economy.

If you usually get free papers at work/university but do not at home, you can either connect to your work VPN or proxy (if any) or elect to have a link to the paper emailed to your work email address below. The email address must be connected to a subscribing college, university, or other subscribing institution. Gmail and other free email addresses will not have access.

E-mail:

Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22155

Users who downloaded this paper also downloaded* these:
Wiswall and Zafar w22173 Preference for the Workplace, Human Capital, and Gender
Clay, Lewis, and Severnini w21635 Pollution, Infectious Disease, and Mortality: Evidence from the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic
Currie and Schwandt w22199 Mortality Inequality: The Good News from a County-Level Approach
Crucini and Smith w22175 Distance and Time Effects in Swedish Commodity Prices, 1732–1914
Davis w22105 The Environmental Cost of Global Fuel Subsidies
 
Publications
Activities
Meetings
NBER Videos
Themes
Data
People
About

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email: info@nber.org

Contact Us