Published on
The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

Report Details 'Coal's Assault on Human Health'

Ken Ward Jr.

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)

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.

The report by Physicians for Social Responsibility examined coal's
impacts on major organ systems of the human body, from the lungs to the

"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

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

"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

"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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