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For children’s sake, move away from coal
The Washington Department of Ecology is now receiving comments on the state’s proposed plan to reduce pollution that causes haze in national parks. Here’s mine: The state’s proposed plan will ultimately fail to reduce haze.
ALEXANDER HAMLING, MD
As a pediatrician working to keep children in Washington healthy, this is bad news. The haze pollutants that destroy our ability to see Washington’s beautiful wilderness areas are also extremely hazardous to human health, especially the health of children.
Next to auto emissions, the state’s largest source of haze-causing nitrogen oxide pollution is the TransAlta coal plant in Centralia. Our unnecessary use of coal is not only ruining our mountain vistas but it is also making our children sick.
Though frustrated by this reality, I am encouraged by the growing movement to protect public health by moving Washington beyond coal.
The TransAlta facility is Washington’s last coal-fired power plant. It is also our state’s largest source of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury pollution.
According to “Coal’s Assault on Human Health,” a report by Physicians for Social Responsibility, coal pollutants have been linked to four of the five leading causes of death in our nation, including cancer, stroke, heart disease and chronic lower respiratory diseases. As leaders in our state debate the future of TransAlta, they must take the health impacts of coal seriously and insist that the plant transition off coal as soon as possible.
Annually, TransAlta emits more than 350 pounds of mercury, a devastating neurotoxin that can permanently damage the brain, kidneys and developing fetus. Exposure to high levels of mercury has been linked to developmental delays and mental retardation.
In addition to impacting our neurological health, coal pollutants also damage our respiratory system.
Annually, TransAlta emits more than 10,000 tons of nitrogen oxide. Nitrogen oxide adversely affects lung development, reducing forced expiratory volume (FEV) in children. This reduction in FEV, an indication of lung function, often precedes the subsequent development of pulmonary diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.
The Centers for Disease Control have identified Washington’s asthma prevalence as among the highest in the nation, and the proportion of the state population with asthma is steadily increasing. Fine particulate matter – also emitted during coal combustion – is correlated to the development of lung cancer. A child’s ability to be physically active should not be limited by unnecessary causes of lung disease.
The global warming pollution emitted annually by TransAlta is equivalent to the annual emissions of 1.8 million cars. Climate Change affects the fundamental requirements for health-clean air, safe drinking water, and sufficient food. The recent failure of federal action on climate change makes the state’s role in reducing carbon pollution increasingly imperative.
The toxicity of coal does not end there. Annually, TransAlta releases 2.3 million tons of toxic coal ash. This post-combustion waste contains a significant array of toxins, including arsenic, chromium and lead. Arsenic and chromium are known human carcinogens. Children exposed to lead at a young age are more likely to suffer from learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Lead exposure has also been linked to kidney damage and miscarriage.
TransAlta is not only jeopardizing the health of children, but the health effects linked to TransAlta’s pollution are also draining Washington’s economy. The National Research Council’s report, “Hidden Costs of Energy,” found that we spend roughly $11.2 million every year to pay for health care costs linked to TransAlta.
Within my practice at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, I do everything in my power to keep my patients healthy. Once they are discharged from the hospital, they depend on the air they breathe and the water they drink to nourish them, not harm them.
For the sake of our public health, we need a quick transition off of coal power. Our state leaders must consider the health impacts and costs of coal power and transition Washington off coal by 2015.
Dr. Alexander Hamling is a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a volunteer with the Coal-Free Washington campaign.
Originally published in the Tacoma News Tribune.