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Coal’s Assault on Human Health Letter

Draft of proposed op-ed article by Barbara Warren, MD, MPH and Eve Shapiro, MD

When we think of Tucson’s sources of energy, we rarely remember that it comes from burning coal, and that coal is by far the largest source of fuel for power plants across the country and in Arizona.  Last month, Physicians for Social Responsibility released a report documenting the devastating health impact of all phases of coal production, from mining, washing and transportation to combustion and disposal of coal ash.  PSR is a national organization of physicians, nurses, other health professionals and many other concerned citizens working to prevent the gravest threats to human health and survival.  The effects of coal on human health are well known, but under reported.  Coal pollutants affect all major organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the U.S.,  including  heart disease, cancer, stroke, and lower respiratory diseases.  As physicians, we have seen ever increasing rates of asthma in children and chronic respiratory diseases and cancer in adults over the last 30 years.  Scientists are aware that particulates, or large particles in the air, many of which come from coal burning, are related to the increased rates of respiratory illnesses.  Because children tend to be outside longer and are more active, they tend to be particularly adversely affected.

One of the pollutants which come from coal production is methymercury, which is now in all sources of water in the U.S.   Everyone is aware that the Environmental Protection Agency suggested that pregnant women and young children limit their intake of fish.  Why?   Because fish consumption of food in water contaminated with mercury gets concentrated in their bodies. The developing fetus and young children are highly susceptible to low levels of mercury due to their growing brains.  Mercury is a neurotoxin that can affect learning.  I am amazed about how many parents are concerned about the tiny amounts of ethyl mercury that used to be in vaccines as a preservative.  This form is not harmful.  Yet we know that methyl mercury is a real threat to our children. Why aren’t parents protesting attempts to build more coal fueled power plants and further contaminate our environment with methyl mercury?
In this era of climate change, we have unique opportunities and challenges to develop new and safer types of energy sources for our communities, like wind power or solar power.   Solar power can offer many new jobs and resources for Arizona.  Wind power is gaining favor in Northern Arizona.  Coal is not the answer; there are no ready made solutions in “clean” coal.  The process of coal combustion results in multiple toxic substances that are either left as residuals in toxic brews of coal ash piles or coal ash ponds and these are affecting the health of our communities. 
We all have a responsibility to protect the future health of ourselves and our children and grandchildren by demanding that our leaders make safe energy choices for us and our communities and to eliminate the growth of hazardous wastes in our environments.  Ask your legislative representatives and senators and the Arizona Corporation Commissioners to make the right decisions to achieve these ends.
Dr. Eve Shapiro, Pediatrician

Dr. Barbara Warren, Retired, Internal Medicine 

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