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PSR to World Bank: Consider Health Before Funding Coal

July 17, 2012

PSR-affiliated physicians joined with distinguished colleagues from several nations to urge the World Bank to reconsider financing a lignite coal-fired power plant proposed to be built in Kosovo.

In a letter written by PSR board member Alan Lockwood, MD FAAN, the signers called on the World Bank to first undertake a study of the externalized costs of the project, especially the health effects. 

Those effects “we believe would be significant,” the letter notes, “knowing that the new power plant [would] be built just five miles outside the capital city of Pristina, where over half a million people live.”

The letter is addressed to Dr. Jim Yong Kim, the newly installed president of the World Bank.  Dr. Kim is a Korean-American physician trained at Harvard and known for his work with the poor as a co-founder of Partners in Health. 

PSR looks forward to the opportunity to dialogue with Dr. Kim about the concerns expressed in the letter.

Lignite:  Worst available option

While acknowledging that developing nations need adequate supplies of energy, the letter makes clear that the use of coal, and lignite in particular, to generate electricity is the worst of available options.

Lignite is a soft form of coal that yields more pollutants when burned.  Compared to other types of coal, lignite has the lowest carbon content and the highest moisture content, producing the lowest rate of heat production while emitting more CO2. It also has the greatest adverse health effects. 

Lignite is mined heavily in Kosovo.

Adverse health effects

The health effects of coal combustion begin with the risks to miners of developing coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung disease), progressive massive fibrosis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Smokestack emissions from coal release harmful substances that extend the health threats far beyond the coal plant.  Among the most dangerous are sulfur oxides (powerful irritants when inhaled and contributors to acid rain and particulate matter); nitrogen oxides (also powerful irritants, contributors to acid rain, and a major ingredient in ozone); and particulate matter.

Particulate matter consists of tiny particles of soot released from coal-burning.  They can lodge deep in the lungs, where they trigger inflammation and the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Inflammation and ROS damage or kill cells in the lungs and in other organs, including blood vessels leading to the development of atherosclerosis.

Coal-burning also releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.  Both are potent greenhouse gases which contribute to health effects – heat waves, extreme weather events, expanded disease ranges, sea-level rise – that threaten health around the world.

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