Coal Tattoo

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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.