Physicians Group Comes Out Strongly Against Coal Power

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It’s been known for a long time that the emissions from coal are harmful, both to the environment and human health. Yet, because it’s so plentiful, the U.S. still gets the majority of its electricity from coal-fired power. With the world focused on increasing the use of plug-in cars, where we get our future electricity becomes a key question.

Yesterday, a medical report was released, “Coal’s Assault on Human Health,” highlighting the dangers of coal, by the Physicians for Social Responsibility. Other study participants included the American Lung Association and the American Nurses Association.

The report studied the “devastating impacts of coal on the human body”. Through the examination of the cumulative impact on major organ systems, including the respiratory system, cardiovascular system, and nervous system, the researchers concluded that, “coal contributes to four of the top five causes of mortality in the U.S and is responsible for increasing the incidence of major diseases already affecting large portions of the U.S. population.” In addition, the report reviewed coal’s contribution to global warming and the health implications as a result.

Similar to “cancer alleys” found in areas that are the home of oil refineries, there are higher incidents of health related conditions in areas near coal plants. Environmentalists and health organizations have lobbied for years for stricter emission controls on biorefineries, and in the past few years, have begun to turn their attention to coal-fired power plants. More than two dozen proposed new coal-fired power plants were killed in 2008 alone.

In a press statement, Alan H. Lockwood, MD FAAN and a principal author of the report and a professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo noted, “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.

Why is coal so harmful? The combustion of coal releases several toxic chemicals including mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health. In an earlier post, I wrote that researchers from Purdue and NASA have determined that some of these toxins contribute more heavily to global climate change than CO2 and methane.

“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 study demonstrated that coal pollutants affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S including heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases such as asthma, and lung cancer.

In addition to studying the health effects of coal pollution, the researchers also looked at the health impacts associated with each step of the coal life cycle. Some of these effects include fatal injuries among miners, as well as the effects of residents from blasting, washing, leakage from “slurry ponds,” mine collapses, water pollution, and resultant pollution from dust created during the transportation process.

According to the report the storage of post-combustion wastes from coal plants also threatens human health. There are 584 coal ash dump sites in the U.S., and toxic residues have migrated into water supplies at dozens of sites. While every stage of the coal life cycle creates adverse human health issues, the combustion phase exacts the greatest toll.

From a transportation perspective, the biggest issue surrounding coal-fired power plants is the concern that when people begin plugging their electric vehicles into the grid, the negative environmental impacts from coal, will offset the gains achieved when driving cars that don’t use fossil fuels. Some argue that until the grid reduces its reliance on coal-fired power, the country is better off using other alternative sources to reduce CO2 such as advanced biofuels.

Click here to read the full report.

Joanna Schroeder

Joanna is a writer and consultant specializing in renewable energy and sustainable agriculture issues.