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“Coal’s assault on human health”

November 25th, 2009 · No Comments

While the denialosphere is shouting about “ClimateGate” and traditional media turn their attention to SwiftHack, the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) released a report that should be on the front page of every newspaper, discussed passionately on every talk show, and be heard about by every adult American. While aware of the impacts of burning coal on human health and the myth of “Clean Coal“, the PSR report Coal’s Assault on Human Health drives this issue home.

Coal’s Assault on Human Health’s executive summary‘s (pdf) opening paragraph:

Coal pollutants affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S.: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. This conclusion emerges from our reassessment of the widely recognized health threats from coal. Each step of the coal lifecycle (mining, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of post-combustion wastes) impacts human health. Coal combustion in particular contributes to diseases affecting large portions of the U.S. population, including asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, compounding the major public health challenges of our time. It interferes with lung development, increases the risk of heart attacks, and compromises intellectual capacity.

Global Warming is a massively serious threat for which emissions from burning coal are a major contributor. It should be enough to decide that coal should not be part of our collective future. Let’s, however, put the pesky issue of catastrophic climate change aside.

Acidification of the oceans is terrifying for anyone who wants seafood or cares about planetary health and comes, in no small part, due to Co2 emissions from burning coal. Let’s, however, forget about the viability of the oceans to support complex ecosystems.

The material in Coal’s Assault on Human Health should provide enough reason to move away from coal toward a clean energy future (and fuller employment with clean energy jobs). In the words of Kristen Welker-Hood, SCD MSN RN, PSR’s director of environment and health programs.

These stark conclusions leave no room for doubt or delay.

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.”

Here is a summary of the impacts:

Coal combustion releases mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health. This report looks at the cumulative harm inflicted by those pollutants on three major body organ systems: the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, and the nervous system. The report also considers coal’s contribution to global warming, and the health implications of global warming.

  • Respiratory Effects: Air pollutants produced by coal combustion act on the respiratory system, contributing to serious health effects including asthma, lung disease and lung cancer, and adversely affect normal lung development in children.
  • Cardiovascular Effects: Pollutants produced by coal combustion lead to cardiovascular disease, such as arterial occlusion (artery blockages, leading to heart attacks) and infarct formation (tissue death due to oxygen deprivation, leading to permanent heart damage), as well as cardiac arrhythmias and congestive heart failure. Exposure to chronic air pollution over many years increases cardiovascular mortality.
  • Nervous System Effects: 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.
  • Global Warming: Even people who do not develop illnesses from coal pollutants will find their health and wellbeing impacted due to coal’s contribution to global warming. The discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere associated with burning coal is a major contributor to global warming and its adverse effects on health and wellbeing worldwide, such as heat stroke, malaria, declining food production, scarce water supplies, social conflict and starvation.

Now, it isn’t just the National Academy of Sciences (Hidden Costs of Energy) or the Physicians for Social Responsibility. Lancet, one of the globe’s leading medical journals, just published a special section about how tackling global warming will save lives.

For example, switching to low-polluting cars in London and Delhi, India, would save 160 lost years of life in London and nearly 1,700 in Delhi for every million residents, one study found. But if people also drove less and walked or biked more, those extra saved years would soar to more than 7,300 years in London and 12,500 years in Delhi because of less heart disease.

Outside scientists praised the studies … “The science is really excellent; the modeling is quite good,” said Dr. Paul Epstein of the Harvard School of Medicine’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. “It really takes the whole field a step farther.

The Lancet special section on health and climate change merits our attention … both in terms of reading it and then in seeing that it is heeded in policy discussions.

In short, forget about global warming, we should act to stop our fossil foolish ways to protect our health.

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Tags: carbon dioxide · coal · Energy · environmental · Global Warming · pollution