Major new report: Coal’s ‘Assault on Human Health’

November 18, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


A new report out this morning from the group Physicians for Social Responsibility outlines an “assault on human health” by the mining of coal, the burning of coal and the disposal of coal’s waste products.

According to this new report:

Electricity provides many health benefits world-wide and is a significant contributor to economic development, a higher standard of living and an increased life expectancy.

But burning coal to generate electricity harms human health and compounds many of the major public health problems facing the industrialized world. 

Detrimental health effects are associated with every aspect of coal’s life cycle, including mining, hauling, preparation at the power plant, combustion, and the disposal of post-combustion wastes.

In addition, 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 worldwide.

Among other adverse effects, the report links coal pollution to: Asthma, stunted lung development, infant mortality, lung cancer, abnormal heart rates or heart attacks, congestive heart failure, stroke and developmental delays.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is a non-profit advocacy organization that is the medical and public health voice for policies to prevent nuclear war and proliferation and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment.

They’ve posted their complete report, “Coal’s Assault on Human Health” here. It was being released this morning during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Among the issues highlighted in the new report:

— Coal mining leads U.S. industries in fatal injuries, and is associated with chronic health problems among miners, such as black lung disease, which causes permanent scarring of the lung tissues.

— In addition to the miners themselves, communities near coal mines may be adversely affected by mining operations due to the effects of blasting, the collapse of abandoned mines, and the dispersal of dust from coal trucks.

— Surface mining also destroys forests and ground cover, leading to flood-related injury and mortality, as well as soil erosion and the contamination of water supplies.

Concerning mountaintop removal mining, the report notes this practice:

… Involves blasting down to the level of the coal seam — often hundreds of feet below the surface — and depositing the resulting rubble in adjoining valleys. This surface mining technique, used widely across southern Appalachia, damages freshwater aquatic ecosystems and the surrounding environment by burying streams and headwaters.

After removal of coal from a mine, the report says:

… Threats to public health persist. When mines are abandoned, rainwater reacts with exposed rock to cause the oxidation of metal sulfide minerals. This reaction releases iron, aluminum, cadmium, and copper into the surrounding water system and can contaminate drinking water.

Coal washing, which removes soil and rock impurities before coal is transported to power plants, uses polymer chemicals and large quantities of water and creates a liquid water called slurry. Slurry ponds can leak or fail, leading to injury and death, and slurry injected underground into old mine shafts can release arsenic, barium, lead and manganese into nearby wells, contaminating local water supplies.

Once coal is mined and washed, it must be transported to power plants. Railroad engines and trucks together release over 600,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 50,000 tons of particulate matter into the air every year in the process of hauling coal, largely through diesel exhaust. Coal trains and trucks also release coal dust into the air, exposing nearby communities to dust inhalation.

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 and threatened human health at dozens of these sites.

Finally, the combustion phase of coal’s life cycle:

… Exacts the greatest toll on human health. Coal combustion releases sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health.  Coal combustion contributes to smog through the release of oxides of nitrogen, which react with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, the primary ingredient in smog.

This new report builds on the findings of a study issued last month by the National Academy of Sciences, which outlined $62 billion a year in “external damages” attributable to premature deaths because of air pollution from coal-fired power plants. See National Academy blockbuster: Coal’s huge hidden costs. As the National Academy study pointed out, other energy sources have hidden costs as well … but experts are documenting pretty clearly that coal’s costs are much more significant.

Among the more interesting things mentioned in this new report:

— While the report says coal mining leads the U.S. industries in fatal injuries, the statistics cited were from 2006, the worst year in coal mining in a long, long time. Also, the report does note that the nonfatal injury rate in mining, of 3.9 per 100 full-time workers, “compares favorably to other private sector workers, where the average incidence rate of nonfatal injury was 5.4 in 2001.”

— Over the last 10 years, at least 10,000 coal miners died from black lung disease.

— Though coal supplies just less than 50 percent of the nation’s electricity, it produces a “disproportionate share of electric utility-related pollution.” Coal plants emit 87 percent of the utility-related nitrogen oxides pollution, 94 percent of utility-related sulfur dioxide pollution, and 98 percent of utility-related mercury pollution.  In addition:

Even across economic sectors, coal plants are responsible for a large share of human-caused air pollution: They are the single largest source of sulfur dioxide, mercury, and air toxic emissions and the second largest source of nitrogen oxide pollution.

Coal combustion is also responsible for more than 30 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide pollutants, contributing significantly to global warming.

The report recommends:

— Emissions of carbon dioxide should be reduced as deeply and as swiftly as possible.

— There should be no 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.

— The nation must develop its capacity to generate electricity from clean, safe, renewable sources so that existing coal-fired power plants may be phased out without eliminating jobs or compromising the nation’s ability to meet its energy needs.

The report concludes:

The U.S. is at a crossroads for determining its future energy policy. While the U.S. relies heavily on coal for its energy needs, the health consequences of that reliance are multiple and have widespread and damaging impact.

Coal combustion contributes to diseases already affecting large portions of the U.S. population, including asthma, heart disease, and stroke, thus compounding the major public health challenges of our time.

Coal combustion also releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Unless we address coal, the U.S. will be unable to achieve the reductions in carbon emissions  necessary to stave off the worse health impacts of global warming.

17 Responses to “Major new report: Coal’s ‘Assault on Human Health’”

  1. A-mouse says:

    The greatest hypocrisy in all of this? Rockefeller, champion of health care, while also one of the greatest obstacles to passing strong climate legislation. Hopefully this study will help to enlighten him about the connection between coal and health issues facing the country and his home state of WV.

  2. […] Blogs @ The Charleston Gazette – » Major new report: Coal’s ‘Assault on Human Health’ – view page – cached A new report out this morning from the group Physicians for Social Responsibility outlines an “assault on human health” by the mining of coal, the burning of coal and the disposal of coal’s… Read moreA new report out this morning from the group Physicians for Social Responsibility outlines an “assault on human health” by the mining of coal, the burning of coal and the disposal of coal’s waste products. Read less […]

  3. Nanette says:

    I remember well when Rockefeller first ran for office. He was against surface mining. When he lost that race he changed his stance on the subject just for winning votes. It worked and he has won every election since. I have often wondered about a person’s inner self that can make a judgement call like that. How can a person change on a dime to profit himself/herself? There is something wrong with their moral compass IMO. But we are talking politics. Enough said about that.

    Rockefeller knows about the health issues in the coalfields, but when he puts the coal industry on one side of the scale and the health issues related to coal on the other side of the scale, I truly believe that the coal industry will win in his mind, and we will all pay the price for it in the long run.

  4. blondie says:

    Ah, A-mouse and Nanette, you miss his logic: He advocates for universal health care as a sop to his conscience for all the people injured or made ill by the MTR and coal-burning he advocates! And it’s only an added bonus that it potentially will save all those coal companies a ton of money, since they won’t have to provide health insurance any more.

  5. Thomas Rodd says:

    I don’t think I would challenge any of the factual assertions in this report.

    And yet . . . there is a part of me that is saddened when reports like this don’t begin with a huge and heartfelt “thank you” to the millions of people who have spent their lives mining and burning coal, to give us modernity – including the modern medicine that allows groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility to do their thing.

    I feel somewhat the same way at political banquets, when no one ever thanks the people who prepare and serve the food — as is done at Ruritan and church dinners in Preston County.

    Let’s be specific about the “health effects of coal.” I have a child with a serious illness, and he is alive today because of an industrial economy that was built on and is still mostly fueled by coal and oil. I have no illusions about the price that we pay for using those fuels, but I am not so blind or insensitive that I don’t every day acknowledge my debt to that economy, and to the people who make those fuels useful.

    Beating up on coal is easy. Acknowledging that coal is what got us here is fair – and, I think, very useful for all of us, as we move into the future. What do others think?

  6. Casey says:

    All good studies have recommendations as does this one:
    “to generate electricity from clean, safe, renewable sources”. This is a good recommendation that should be pursued and a cost/benefit analysis performed. Providing base load electrical power from renewables will require some time and work, especially cost effectively.

    I did appreciate the recognition by the study that electricity “provides many health benefits world-wide and is a significant contributor to economic development, a higher standard of living and an increased life expectancy.” That is something that should be mentioned every time negatives about coal are cited as it would help a lack of balance criticism. I also appreciated the inclusion of methane in the climate discussion and found it interesting that a lot of CH4 comes from the gas industry.

    I would be curious to see a similar study regarding the health costs for our beloved transportation methods. I know people love their cars and love to hate coal but fair is fair.

  7. Casey says:

    Mr Rodd, well said. Just mentioning the negatives alienates many readers whereas they might be more open-minded otherwise. Of course it works both ways.

    Anyway I’d like to thank Ken Ward for having this blog.

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I think you need to read the report … page 1 of the executive summary, third paragraph (which I quoted in my blog post and also cited by Casey):

    “Electricity provides many health benefits world-wide and is a significant contributor to economic development, a higher standard of living and an increased life expectancy.”

    Also, page 3 of the main body of the report:

    Although people have burned coal for hundreds of years, the demand for coal exploded during the industrial revolution. Initially, coal powered the steam engine and therefore became the essential fuel for transportation during the nineteenth century, when steamships and railroads flourished. By fueling the steam shovel, coal became the vehicle for its own excavation. By the middle of the 1800s, coal replaced charcoal in the production of iron and steel, thus filling another key role in driving industrialization. Coal became a source of energy for the generation of electricity at the end of the 1800s.
    Oil eventually replaced coal as the fuel of choice in the transportation industry. However, coal has once again become the dominant source of energy for the generation of electricity. Because more than 25% of the world’s recoverable coal reserves are in the U.S. and because it is cheap, there has been a recent resurgence of coal as an energy source among utilities. This modern coal boom is exemplified by the dozens of new coal plants currently in the planning or construction stage.
    Today coal is the predominant source of energy used to produce electricity. Almost half of the energy used to generate electricity in the U.S. in 2007 came from coal, mined in such states as Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. In addition to its major role in the generation of electricity, large amounts of coal are used by the steel industry. According to the World Coal Institute, almost 70% of global steel production is dependent on coal.
    Coal is formed from fossilized prehistoric plants subjected to heat and pressure over millions of years. Coal is classified into four main types, or ranks, based on moisture and carbon content: lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous, and anthracite (see Table 2.1). High-carbon coals produce the most energy when burned and low-carbon coals produce the least. Lignite is the lowest rank of coal, having the highest moisture content and the lowest energy content. Sub-bituminous coal is the next highest rank, with a lower moisture content and higher carbon content than lignite. Harder, black coals are higher in rank and include bituminous coal, the most abundant form of coal in the U.S., and anthracite, the hardest, richest in carbon and the rarest. Impurities such as sulfur and heavy metals are incorporated into coals as they are formed and are released when coals are burned or cleaned.
    Electricity generation provides many benefits worldwide, and is synonymous with economic development, higher standards of living, and increased life expectancy. However there are major health costs associated with the use of coal. Detrimental health effects are associated with every aspect of its life cycle, including mining, hauling, preparation at the power plant, combustion, and the disposition of post-combustion wastes. This section reviews in brief the human health effects of coal’s life cycle.

    AND, I can think of no better way to thank coal miners than to outline very clearly — as this report does — the bitter price they have paid for all of us to have the benefits coal provides:

    Coal mining leads U.S. industries in fatal injuries. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the 2006 fatality rate in coal mining was 49.5 per 100,000 workers, more than 11 times greater than that in all private industry (4.2 per 100,000). There were 47 occupational fatalities in coal mining in 2006, 34 in 2007, and 30 in 2008. Underground coal mining is more dangerous than surface mining. Of 47 coal mining fatalities in 2006, 37 occurred in underground mining operations. The nonfatal injury rate in mining, of 3.9 per 100 full time workers in 2001, compares favorably to other private sector workers, where the average incidence rate of nonfatal injury was 5.4 in 2001.
    Coal mining is also associated with chronic health problems among miners. Black lung disease is caused by inhalation of respirable coal mine dust, which causes lung tissue scarring. Although technology and prevention strategies have improved incidence and mortality rates in the past century, black lung disease still disables large numbers of ex-miners and claims many lives each year. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, black lung disease has been responsible for approximately 10,000 deaths in the past 10 years.

    I don’t know how many folks are familiar with this organization, but Physicians for Social Responsibility was awarded a Nobel Peace Price in 1985 for its work to build pressure to end the nuclear arms race.


  9. JM2 says:

    Lets turn off all of our fossil fuel based electricity. How many trees do you think would be cut down and burned just so that people can try to keep from freezing and cook the food they could scrape up. Remember coal generates more than half of the nation’ss electricity and over 90% of WV’s electricity. How many people would starve and die from illness induced from living in a non-industrialized setting? I bet I could write a study of liberalism’s effects on human health and come up with the same or worse effects as this report says coal has.

  10. Nanette says:

    JM2 you said,
    “I bet I could write a study of liberalism’s effects on human health and come up with the same or worse effects as this report says coal has.”

    How so? Could you give some points that you would put in such a study if you wrote it? I am very curious.

  11. Nanette says:

    Mr. Rodd, I am truly sorry to hear about your child, but you must remember that there are many children out here that suffer daily from the impacts of coal. My own daughter suffered her whole life with lung problems. When she was grown she had to move from here because of the ever increasing pollution and dust. She is doing very well since she left the coalfields. For every one person who benefits from coal that are many others who suffer from it. It is one thing to keep in mind.

    I know that our own always comes first in all our minds, but we must not forget about others who suffer affects from what our modernized lifestyles are doing to the health of millions overall.

  12. Thomas Rodd says:

    Ken, give me some credit, I did read the report, albeit by skimming, before I posted. And as you note, the report credits “electricity” for promoting health benefits — not coal.

    My ancestors in Pittsburgh, Pa. built the infrastructure of a mighty industrial/scientific economy, well before electricity was a dominant method of transporting using coal’s energy. At the Heinz Western Pa. Historical Museum, you can see how the smoke from the coal-fired steel furnaces blotted out the sun at noon, at a time when my great-grandparents were using those coal-forged steel rails to build the (coal-fired) railroads that still criss-cross the nation (those trains are now fueled by oil; and how about those “health effects” of using oil — like, thousands of dead US soldiers in Iraq, etc. ?)

    Yes, that foul, continuous coal smoke hurt a lot of people in Pittsburgh (and WV) badly, including my grandparents — but back then it was the “state of the art.”

    I would wildly guess that if one takes into account health benefits like the longevity and reduced infant mortality and scientific medicine and public health that coal-based modern industrial/scientific civilization has brought about, then the health benefits of humanity’s using coal over time actually outweigh the negatives.

    I guess my point, which maybe I did not make clear, is that while this view of coal’s human health consequences, which of course could never be proved one way or another, takes nothing away from what this PSR report says. But this view may allow us to see the coal-and-human-health issue in a broader moral context — a context that I personally feel is useful helpful to have in mind, as we go forward.

    Casey seems to suggest that such a view may even promote humility and dialogue, that are too often missing from discussions about coal.

  13. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    You have rightly repeated this refrain many times on Coal Tattoo … and I don’t disagree with you. And Casey is right that such a view might even promote humility and dialogue …

    But I disagree with you about this report. I think it did a far better job than most documents of this sort — a report put together by an interest group that is a bit far from the fray — to give coal credit for the good it has provided.

    Those passages I mention did a pretty good job of that, I thought.

    I also think that it’s easy to romanticize coal’s heritage … while its contributions to our standard of living were great, it wasn’t always good for those who worked in the mines or lived near the mines, steel mills or power plants.

    You can take your promotion of praising the coal industry too far — and then you’re going into this eyes tightly shut.


  14. Thomas Rodd says:

    Many Coal Tattoo readers probably know about the excellent and quite readable book “Coal,” by Barbara Freese. She is a lawyers and “environmentalist” who does a great job in telling the story of coal’s role in constructing modern civilization, while fully documenting coal’s negatives.

    Here’s the Amazon link — check out the reviews, including some by West Virginians:

    One Amazon reviewer criticizes her book for failing to mention the role of coal in early organic chemistry and the synthesis of the first modern medicines.

    I think both Ken Ward and I would agree that the reknowned Appalachian historian, John Alexander Williams, knows more about these issues than most people.

    He is quoted as saying: “Persons who have studied the impact of coal mining on different societies from Silesia to northern Japan have usually concluded that coal has been a curse upon the land that yielded it. West Virginia is no exception. In its repetitive cycle of boom and bust, its savage exploitation of men and nature, in its seemingly endless series of disasters, the coal industry has brought grief and hardship to all but a small proportion of the people whose lives it has touched.”

    Notice that Williams is talking about the coalfields, and not the larger society– which is where my health-effects-related remarks were directed, I hope I made clear.

    I guess I just like the idea that people who are working every day to deliver electricity to hospitals and clinics and pharmaceutical companies would get some explicit personal credit from Physicians for Social Responsibility — as that group delivers their quite fair assessment of the negative effects of that work. Call me romantic — I have to plead guilty, it’s a failing.

    Great discussion!

  15. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for quoting from that chapter in John A. Williams book. In my view, that chapter is the best thing that’s been written ever about the coal industry.

    The next best thing is Dr. Paul Nyden’s dissertation on the Miners for Democracy.

    The interesting thing, perhaps, if you consider what Williams is saying and what Physicians for Social Responsibility is saying …

    The world outside the coalfields has benefited far more than the coalfield communities have from coal’s mining, processing and burning. Their new report focuses on the negative effects in both the coalfields and the outside world, but does not make clear what Williams does:

    “In its repetitive cycle of boom and bust, its savage exploitation of men and nature, in its seemingly endless series of disasters, the coal industry has brought grief and hardship to all but a small proportion of the people whose lives it has touched.”

  16. FactsFirst says:

    Ken and Tom,

    Agree with Tom. Good discussion. Ken, I would say that I think it is a stretch to characterize PSR as a group “a bit far from the fray.” As you acknowledge by calling them an “interest” group, they are in fact, as their website properly discloses, an “advocacy group.” And their goals include addressing climate and the end of nuclear energy. Nonetheless, they deserve some credit for giving a reluctant nod to the benefits of electricity and affordable and dependable electricity from coal. But what appears lacking –and I will admit I have not read the entire report–is as Tom notes context –both in terms of their recitation of statistics and the conclusions they want the reader to derive from them. To begin with, as Ken notes, when it comes to fatalities in coal mining, they cherry pick by starting from 2006, the highest in a long time–albeit still an unaccpetable performance and we can hope that it served as a wake-up call for the industry to improve. And to Ken’s credit in noting that it was the highest in a long time, indeed it was and hopefully will remain so. What the report lacks is the context provided by looking at trends in the areas it cites as costs or externatlities of coal. Context would show that the coal industry has reduced the number of fatalities–in 1968 over 300 coal miners lost their lives–by 2005 it was reduced to 23. 2006 was an unacceptable performance, but it appears that the trend toward reductions has returned with 30 fatalities last year. The report’s statement that coal mining “leads US industries in fatal injuries” is simply incorrect. In terms of pure numbers, many industries dwarf coal mining (2008) construction-969; transportation–762; Government–522; Manufacturing–404 etc. In terms of incidence rates (again 2008 per 100,000 hrs worked): Logging 108.3; agriculture-31.5; oil and gas–23.8; All mining-15.6.
    The same context applies in terms of improving performance for emissions of pollutants–since 1970, coal use to generate electricity has increased almost 200%, but emissions of sulfur dioxide are down more than 50% and particulates over 80%. The point being, there are actual benefits from the electrification coal brings and the record shows continued improvements in safety and environmental performance. Should we desire and expect more–absolutely. But to call for ending the use of coal despite a record of continued improvement as it relates to the negatives cited by PSR appears to be advocacy more than sound policy. PSR’s answers for filling a void left without coal appear inadequate to the task. I agree with Tom Rodd’s commentary that all of this needs to be placed in proper context in order to assess the benefits and costs of coal in society. I eagerly await PSR’s report on logging, farming, manufacturing, cab drivers and hopefully one on the costs associated with the inefficiencies with our current medical care delivery system.

  17. […] they’re done with that, they could give a read to the report “Coal’s Assault on Human Health,” published by the group Physicians for Social […]

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