Coal Tattoo

A different take on coal pollution

We talk a lot on this blog about the impacts coal causes because of our addiction to using it to fuel our industrial society here in the United States. But every once in a while a story out there catches my eye that reminds of coal’s importance — and impacts — in other parts of the world.

Yesterday was such a day … when I read this:

Children raised in homes using indoor coal for cooking or heating appear to be about a half-inch shorter at age 36 months than those in households using other fuel sources, according to a report posted online today that will appear in the June print issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

“Use of coal for indoor heating is widely prevalent in some countries, exposing millions of people to indoor air pollution from coal smoke,” the authors write as background information in the article. “Coal combustion emits chemicals such as fluorine, selenium, mercury, arsenic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into the indoor air, and these chemicals may form residues on household surfaces and food. Often, exposures are prolonged owing to inadequate ventilation.”

A Reuters report said:

Roughly half the world’s population burns coal, dung, wood or crop wastes for heating or cooking, according to the World Health Organization. Indoor air pollution causes up to 1.6 million deaths a year, the group has estimated.

Coal smoke is known to cause lung damage, but the new study “is significant because it indicates there’s some systemic effect” on the entire body.”

The study found:

Prenatal exposure to pollutants has been linked to restricted growth in utero, shorter length at birth, smaller head circumference and early-childhood cognitive deficits. To determine whether exposure to coal byproducts in the years following birth—a period marked by rapid development—also may adversely affect development, Rakesh Ghosh, Ph.D., of University of California, Davis, and colleagues tracked 1,133 children in the Czech Republic from birth to age 36 months. Data was gathered from questionnaires filled out by mothers and from medical records.

Among households in the study, 10.2 percent used coal for indoor heating or cooking and 6.8 percent used wood; 46.8 percent of wood users and 22.4 percent of coal users also used other fuel sources. At age 36 months, boys in coal-burning households were about 1.34 centimeters (0.52 inches) shorter than boys in households using other fuels, and girls raised in homes that used coal were about 1.3 centimeters (0.52 inches) shorter than girls in other homes.

“These findings reaffirm that the negative impact of indoor air pollution from coal may extend beyond the respiratory system of children and indicate possible systemic effects,” the authors write. Exposure to coal smoke may impair growth through several mechanisms; for example, some compounds in the smoke have been identified as endocrine disruptors, which interfere with cell growth and differentiation.

“Because weight and length or height during infancy and childhood are considered to be predictors of morbidity such as obesity and mortality from malnutrition and infections, and in light of an estimated 50 percent of the world population using coal and solid biomass as a domestic fuel, knowledge of such an adverse impact on child health is vital from an international child health perspective,” the authors conclude.

The authors concluded:

Corroboration from other study populations would be desirable. Future research should examine critical time windows in gestation or early life during which children’s growth is more susceptible to harmful exposures such as coal smoke. From a public health perspective, interventions such as replacing coal with cleaner fuels or, at a minimum, ensuring proper ventilation would be helpful.

In conclusion, we found that indoor coal use was associated with reduced height at age 36 months, adjusted for anthropometric and sociodemographic factors. Since half of the world population, mostly from developing countries, still relies on solid fuel for cooking with inadequate ventilation, this finding is of considerable public health concern.