Pollution from coal power plants feared causing the rise in cancer cases in Turkey

21 May, 2021

Written by Ezgi Erdac

Over the past several years, the construction and operation of coal-fired power plants across Turkey are believed to have caused a rapid increase in cancer cases in the country, residents and studies have revealed. 

Environmental organization 350.org issued a report comprising interviews with residents of Adana in the southern part of Turkey and their lawyer İsmail Hakkı Atal. The latter claimed that the number of cancer cases among residents living around three active power plants increased 1,200% over the past years. They also claimed to observe an 11-time increase of cancer cases among people living near the İSKEN Sugözü Power Plant in the region over the same period. 

This condition, unfortunately, does not only occur in Adana. The Turkish Statistical Institute had also reported an increase inf cancer cases and types among residents living around the Alpu coal-fired power plant in Eskişehir province. The institute recorded the most types of cancer were lung, skin, bladder and prostate. The Turkish Medical Association linked breathing on air polluted by the coal power plant byproducts with the rise of lung and bladder cancers as well as other pulmonary diseases. 

Despite the health hazards for local residents, Turkey is still operating coal power plants which are still polluting the air. Every year, the active power plants in the Adana region are responsible for 200 people’s death in a year, according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Meanwhile, in the Eskişehir region near the Alpu power plant, Turkey is expected to have at least 3,200 premature deaths in the following 35 years because of air pollution. 

A doctor in Adana, Mr. Sadun Bölükbaşı, who is also the president of Adana Environment and Consumer Protection Association, said the pollution produced by the power plant in the region had exceeded the daily limit determined by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The WHO is telling us that [people in Adana] face a risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases if you breathe polluted air that contains particulate matter between PM10 and PM2.5,” Bölükbaşı said.   

He added that the government should stop building new power plants as they would only shorten people’s lifetime in the region day by day. 

Bölükbaşı said the health hazard caused by the power plant had been referred to a report signed by five different expert witnesses from Çukurova University, arguing that the construction of another coal power plant would affect the local peoples’ health, biodiversity in the region as well as the quality of air and water.

The report also showed a comparison of cancer cases found in Yumurtalık, a region with a population of around 19,000 people, where the İSKEN coal power plant has been operating for the last 18 years. In 2008, experts found about 14 cancer cases of five different types. Seven years later, they found 49 cases with 11 different cancer types.

The Turkish Medical Association and other medical associations highlighted a similar impact of coal-fired power plants on air pollution and health complications in Turkey.

Coal power has played an important role in Turkey’s energy production because it is still seen as one of the most affordable energy sources by key decision-makers. This is regardless of the dramatic shifts in global energy markets spurred on by the incredible cost reductions of solar and wind energy

As such, the country is operating over 20 coal-fired power plants. 

But coal has contributed to making the energy sector the biggest greenhouse gas and air pollution emitter in Turkey. Coal power plants release nitrogen oxide as one of the byproducts, which is the key element causing air pollution. Around 48% of the nitrogen oxide found in the air across Turkey is believed to have come from coal power plants.

Due to the potential and immediate health hazards, residents in some regions have been trying to oppose the construction of future plants and to shut down the existing ones.

One example can be found in Adana, where residents have been opposing the construction of the EMBA Hunutlu coal power plant. This project is known to have received financial support from several Chinese-based sponsors, including the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), an act that many claim is not in line with the Chinese government’s carbon neutrality target by 2060.

Several local groups went through legal measures to oppose the future power plant by filing dozens of lawsuits, demanding the government to stop the construction. When the local groups requested Chinese investors to stop the construction of the EMBA Hunutlu project, the Bank of China declined their request, while Shanghai Electric Power Co. and ICBC did not respond to their request.

Furthermore, in 2018 the court of Ankara rejected the petition and allowed the power plant company to resume the construction. Even though there are protests from the opposition party, there is still no reaction from the ruling party. 

With demands from the residents seeming to fall on the government’s deaf ear, construction for future coal power plant projects are ongoing. This will put the lives of millions of future generations of residents at risk of cancers and premature deaths caused by pollutions from the power stations. Local people are calling out for help and support to prevent the possibility of getting cancer caused by coal-fired power plant projects in Turkey.

About the author

Ezgi Erdaç, Turkey

Ezgi is a climate policy officer venturing into the world of reporting. She holds a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a masters degree in EU Trade and Climate Diplomacy. Ezgi is looking forward to uncovering the fossil fuel stories in her country and helping the world

This story was made possible through the support of Climate Tracker.