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Report: Coal's Impact Damaging to Health

PSR shows many effects of coal on poor health.

By Steve Jones


With the release of its report, Coal's Assault on Human Health, the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) outline the wide ranging impact of coal on health. Joining PSR in issuing the report are the American Lung Association and the American Nurses Association.

By focusing on the respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems, the report shows the cumulative harm to the body from mercury, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and other hazardous substances released when coal is burned. Also taken into consideration are coal mining and coal's contribution to global warming and its health implications.

"The findings of this report are clear: while the U.S. relies heavily on coal for its energy needs, the consequences of that reliance for our health are grave," said Alan H. Lockwood, MD FAAN, a principal author of the report and a professor of neurology at the University at Buffalo.

"These stark conclusions leave no room for doubt or delay," said Kristen Welker-Hood, SCD MSN RN, PSR's director of environment and health programs. "The time has come for our nation to establish a health-driven energy policy that replaces our dependence on coal with clean, safe alternatives. Business as usual is extracting a deadly price on our health. Coal is no longer an option."

The pollutants in coal affect all the body's major organ systems thus contributing to increased heart disease, stroke, cancer, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

Effect by Organ System

Respiratory: Coal pollutants add to asthma, lung disease, lung cancer, and adversely affect lung development in children.

Cardiovascular: Coal pollutants lead to arterial occlusion (artery blockages), and infarct formation (tissue death due to oxygen deprivation, leading to permanent heart damage), as well as cardiac arrhythmias and congestive heart failure.

Nervous System: Studies show a correlation between coal-related air pollutants and stroke. Coal pollutants also act on the nervous system to cause loss of intellectual capacity, primarily through mercury. Researchers estimate that between 317,000 and 631,000 children are born in the U.S. each year with blood mercury levels high enough to reduce IQ scores and cause lifelong loss of intelligence.

Cycle of Coal

The report looks at the life cycle of coal and its negative consequences on humans. From mining and its detrimental health problems from fatal injuries to pollution in the surrounding communities, coal's impact is felt from extraction to combustion and beyond. Health threats include blasting, slurry ponds, collapse of abandoned mines, toxic runoff in streams and rivers used as water supplies as well as the ever present coal dust.

"Given the disease burden associated with coal as well as its contribution to global warming, it is essential that we establish energy policies based on a fundamental commitment to human health and the health of generations to come," said Peter Wilk, MD, the Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Recommendations

The PSR report makes five policy recommendations to lessen coal's health burden.

1) Cut emissions of carbon dioxide as deeply and as swiftly as possible, with the objective of reducing atmospheric carbon levels to 350 parts per million, through the following:

a) Strong climate and energy legislation that establishes hard caps on global warming pollution coming from coal power plants.

b) Strict enforcement of the Clean Air Act.

2) Reduce fossil fuel power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides so that all localities are in attainment for national ambient air quality standards.

3) Establish a standard, based on Maximum Achievable Control Technology, for mercury and other hazardous air pollutant emissions from electrical generation.

4) End all new construction of coal-fired power plants, so as to avoid increasing health-endangering emissions of carbon dioxide, as well criteria pollutants and hazardous air pollutants.

5) Develop the capacity to generate electricity from clean, safe, renewable sources so that existing coal-fired power plants may be phased out without compromising the nation's ability to meet its energy needs.

While coal is a major source of the US energy supply, it's far reaching impact on our nation's health cannot be ignored. The Physician's for Social Responsibility are clear in their belief that burning coal is hazardous and not a long term energy solution.


For More Information:

Full PSR Report:
www.psr.org/coalreport
PSR Website:
www.psr.org/