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Coal Pollution Damages Human Health at Every Stage of Coal Life Cycle, Reports Physicians for Social Responsibility

November 18, 2009

Washington, DC -  November 18, 2009 – Physicians for Social Responsibility today released a groundbreaking medical report, "Coal's Assault on Human Health," which takes a new look at the devastating impacts of coal on the human body.  By examining the impact of coal pollution on the major organ systems of the human body, the report concludes that coal contributes to four of the top five causes of mortality in the U.S. and is responsible for increasing the incidence of major diseases already affecting large portions of the U.S. population.  A copy of the full report can be found at http://www.psr.org/coalreport.

"The findings of this 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 Alan H. Lockwood, MD FAAN, a principal author of the report and a professor of neurology at the University at Buffalo.

"These stark conclusions leave no room for doubt or delay," says Kristen Welker-Hood, SCD MSN RN, PSR's director of environment and health programs.  "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."

Also participating in the report's release were the American Lung Association and the American Nurses Association.

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.

Viewed in this way, the totality of coal's impact on health becomes clear. 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.

  • 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.

In addition to the impacts from pollutants emitted during coal combustion, the report pinpoints negative health consequences at each step of the coal life cycle.  Coal mining leads U.S. industries in fatal injuries and is associated with chronic health problems among miners.  In addition to the miners themselves, communities near coal mines may be adversely affected by mining operations due to the effects of blasting, washing, leakage from "slurry ponds," the collapse of abandoned mines, damage done to streams and waterways, and the dispersal of dust from coal trucks during transportation. Slurry injected underground can release arsenic, barium, lead and manganese into nearby wells, contaminating local drinking water supplies.  The storage of post-combustion wastes from coal plants also threatens human health.  There are 584 coal ash dump sites in the U.S, and toxic residues have migrated into water supplies at dozens of sites. While every stage of the coal life cycle impacts human health, the combustion phase exacts the greatest toll.

"Given the disease burden associated with coal as well as its contribution to global warming, it is essential that we establish energy policies based on a fundamental commitment to human health and the health of generations to come," said Peter Wilk, MD, the Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Based on the report's findings, PSR issued five policy recommendations:

  • Cut emissions of carbon dioxide as deeply and as swiftly as possible, with the objective of reducing atmospheric carbon levels to 350 parts per million, through 1) strong climate and energy legislation that establishes hard caps on global warming pollution coming from coal power plants, and 2) strict enforcement of the Clean Air Act.  
  • Reduce fossil fuel power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides so that all localities are in attainment for national ambient air quality standards.
  • Establish a standard, based on Maximum Achievable Control Technology, for mercury and other hazardous air pollutant emissions from electrical generation.
  • End all new construction of coal-fired power plants, so as to avoid increasing health-endangering emissions of carbon dioxide, as well as criteria pollutants and hazardous air pollutants. 
  • Develop the capacity to generate electricity from clean, safe, renewable sources so that existing coal-fired power plants may be phased out without compromising the nation's ability to meet its energy needs.

ABOUT PHYSICIANS FOR SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY (PSR)
Founded in 1961 by physicians concerned about the impact of nuclear proliferation, PSR shared the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War for building public pressure to end the nuclear arms race.  Since 1991, when PSR formally expanded its work by creating its environment and health program, PSR has addressed the issues of global warming and the toxic degradation of our environment.  PSR educates and advocates for  policies to curb global warming, ensure clean air, generate a sustainable energy future, prevent human exposures to toxic substances, and minimize toxic pollution of air, food, and drinking water.  More information is available at www.psr.org

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