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Report Details 'Coal's Assault on Human Health'

by Ken Ward Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coal pollution is assaulting human health through impacts on workers, residents near mining operations and power plants, and the environment in coalfield communities, according to a new report by a group of physicians.

Greenpeace activists unfurl a banner condemning the use of coal near one of Beijing's biggest coal-fired power plants. (AFP/File/Frederic J. Brown) The report by Physicians for Social Responsibility examined coal's impacts on major organ systems of the human body, from the lungs to the brain.

"The findings of the 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 Dr. Alan J. Lockwood, a University of Buffalo neurologist and principal author of the report.

The 65-page report, released Wednesday morning, notes that coal provides nearly half of the nation's electricity "and is a significant contributor to economic development, a higher standard of living, and an increased life expectancy."

But, coal combustion releases mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health. The report, "Coal's Assault on Human Health," looks at the cumulative harm inflicted by those pollutants on the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system and the nervous system.

Among the findings:

* Respiratory system -- Air pollutants associated with coal combustion contribute to serious respiratory ailments, including asthma, lung disease and lung cancer. They also adversely affect normal lung development in children.

* Cardiovascular effects -- Pollutants produced by coal combustion lead to cardiovascular disease, such as blocked arteries that lead to heart attacks, and tissue death that leads to heart damage. Coal pollutants also contribute to irregular heartbeats and congestive heart failure. Exposure to chronic air pollution over many years increases the likelihood of cardiovascular death.

* Nervous system effects -- Studies show a correlation between coal-related 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.

* Global warming -- Even people who do not develop illnesses from coal pollutants could find their health and wellbeing impacted because of coal's contribution to global warming. The discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from coal-burning power plants is a major contributor to global warming and its adverse effects on health worldwide, such as heat stroke, malaria, declining food production, scarce water supplies, social conflict and starvation.

The report also notes the grave health effects experienced by coal miners, including injuries and deaths in mining accidents and, in the last 10 years alone the deaths of at least 10,000 coal miners to black lung disease.

And, it notes degradation of the environment from surface mining and the potential contamination of drinking water supplies from storage of coal-fired power plant wastes in huge impoundments across the coalfields.

"These stark conclusions leave no room for doubt or delay," said Kristen Welker-Hood, director of environment and health programs for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The report recommends cutting carbon dioxide emissions as deeply and as quickly as possible, reducing emissions of other coal pollutants, a ban on new coal-fired power plants, and a focus on clean, renewable energy sources.

"The time has come for our nation to establish a health-drive energy policy that replaces our dependence on coal with clean, safe alternatives," Hood said.

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