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Health Costs of Burning Coal

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  • mtneuman@juno.com
    Eco-Economy Update 2004-11 For Immediate Release Copyright Earth Policy Institute 2004 August 24, 2004 COAL TAKES HEAVY HUMAN TOLL: Some 25,100 U.S. Deaths
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 24, 2004
      Eco-Economy Update 2004-11
      For Immediate Release
      Copyright Earth Policy Institute 2004
      August 24, 2004

      Some 25,100 U.S. Deaths from Coal Use Largely Preventable

      Janet Larsen

      Startling new research shows that one out of every six women of
      childbearing age in the United States may have blood mercury
      concentrations high enough to damage a developing fetus. This means that
      630,000 of the 4 million babies born in the country each year are at risk
      of neurological damage because of exposure to dangerous mercury levels in
      the womb.

      Fetuses, infants, and young children are most at risk for mercury damage
      to their nervous systems. New studies show that mercury exposure may also
      damage cardiovascular, immune, and reproductive systems. Chronic
      exposure prenatally or in the early years of life can delay development
      and hamper performance in tests of attention, fine motor skills,
      visual spatial skills, and verbal memory. At high concentrations, mercury
      can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, and
      even death.

      Humans are exposed to mercury primarily by eating contaminated fish.
      Forty-five of the 50 states have issued consumption advisories limiting
      the eating of fish caught locally because of their high mercury content.
      New analyses of fish samples collected by the Environmental Protection
      Agency (EPA) from 500 lakes and reservoirs across the country found
      mercury in every single sample. In 55 percent of them, mercury levels
      exceeded the EPA's "safe" limit for a woman of average weight eating fish
      twice a week, and 76 percent exceeded limits for children under the age
      three. Four out of five predator fish-those higher on the food chain,
      as tuna or swordfish-exceeded the limits.

      The largest source of mercury pollution is coal-fired power plants.
      Airborne mercury emitted by these facilities is deposited anywhere from
      within a few hundred kilometers of the smokestacks to across continents,
      far from its source. Biological processes change much of the deposited
      mercury into methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin that humans and other
      organisms readily absorb. Methylmercury easily travels up the aquatic
      chain, accumulating at higher concentrations at each level. Larger
      predator species contain the most mercury, which is then passed on to
      those who eat them.

      Since the industrial revolution began, mercury contamination in the
      environment has jumped threefold. The 600 plus coal-fired power plants in
      the United States, which produce over half of the country's electricity,
      burn 1 billion tons of coal and release 98,000 pounds (44 metric tons) of
      mercury into the air each year. Power plants yield an additional 81,000
      pounds of mercury pollution in the form of solid waste, including fly ash
      and scrubber sludge, and 20,000 pounds of mercury from "cleaning" coal
      before it is burned. In sum, coal-fired power plants pollute the
      environment with some 200,000 pounds of mercury annually.

      Solid wastes from coal-fired power plants also contain heavy metals like
      arsenic, selenium, chromium, and cadmium; carcinogenic organic compounds;
      and radioactive elements. These toxins can leach into streams and
      groundwater supplies, compromising people's health.

      Other atmospheric emissions from burning coal include sulfur dioxide
      (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides
      (NOx), which in turn form ground-level ozone. SO2 and ozone are highly
      corrosive gases that cause respiratory distress and contribute to low
      birth weight and increased infant mortality. SO2 and NOx are also the
      primary causes of acid rain. CO2 is the dominant gas responsible for the
      greenhouse effect that is warming the planet.

      Particulate matter from coal combustion has long been known to harm the
      respiratory system. Now recent research has shown that small airborne
      particulate matter also can cross from the lungs into the bloodstream,
      leading to cardiac disease, heart attacks, strokes, and premature death.

      In the United States, 23,600 deaths each year can be attributed to air
      pollution from power plants. Those dying prematurely due to exposure to
      particulate matter lose, on average, 14 years of life. Burning coal also
      is responsible for some 554,000 asthma attacks, 16,200 cases of chronic
      bronchitis, and 38,200 non-fatal heart attacks each year. Atmospheric
      power plant pollution in the United States racks up an estimated annual
      health care bill of over $160 billion.

      The Bush administration's so-called Clear Skies initiative allows for an
      increase in SO2, NOx, particulate matter, and mercury pollution above the
      levels permitted under the existing Clean Air Act, and it does nothing to
      limit climate-disrupting CO2. Older coal-burning power plants failing to
      meet modern air emissions standards release 10 times more NOx and SO2
      modern coal plants do. Under the administration's plans, these
      "grandfathered" plants could continue to circumvent emissions
      controls-with unhealthy effects.

      Although pollution scrubbers in modern smokestacks do reduce air
      pollution, they do nothing to help the coal miners who die each year in
      mine accidents or from diseases brought on by breathing hazardous coal
      dust. While the annual number of worker fatalities on-site in the 2,000
      U.S. coal mines has fallen to around 30, pneumoconiosis-commonly known as
      black lung disease-kills an estimated 1,500 former coal miners a year.
      in every 20 miners in the United States has X-ray evidence of this
      disease, a number that is bound to worsen if the Bush administration
      succeeds with plans to quadruple allowable levels of coal dust in mines.

      Using coal, a hazardous nineteenth-century fuel, when we have
      twenty-first-century alternatives is hard to understand. Renewable energy
      sources, such as wind and solar, do not require dangerous mining or
      mountaintop removal, nor do they pollute the air, land, and water with a
      slew of toxic chemicals. Full-cost pricing of coal to include the
      environmental damages and the enormous health care burden of using it,
      combined with removing antiquated subsidies on all fossil fuels, could go
      a long way toward encouraging more investment in renewables.

      In addition, simple energy efficiency measures can reduce our reliance on
      fossil fuels and save money, too. Research from the Alliance to Save
      Energy indicates that improving efficiency standards for household
      appliances in the United States could allow 127 power plants to close.
      More stringent air conditioner efficiency standards could shut down 93
      power plants. And raising the efficiency standards of both new and
      existing buildings through mechanisms like tax credits and energy codes
      could close 380 power plants. Using these methods to shut down the 600
      most polluting coal-fired power plants in the country would be a boon for
      public health.

      Several European countries have begun to lead the transition away from
      coal. (See data at http://www.earth-policy.org/Updates/Update42_data.htm
      ) In
      Germany, coal use has been cut in half since 1990, while expanding wind
      electric generation is taking its place. Coal use in the United Kingdom
      has dropped by 46 percent over the same period, offset by efficiency
      and a shift toward natural gas. Plans are moving ahead for a huge
      expansion in wind energy in the U.K. and other European countries.

      By moving beyond coal, the United States could avoid a legacy of
      smog-filled skies, acid rain, polluted waterways, contaminated fish, and
      scarred landscapes. This could each year save some 25,000 lives, reduce
      respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, avert potential neurological
      damage for 630,000 babies, and erase a health care bill of over $160

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