Health Costs of Burning Coal
- 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 from Coal Use Largely Preventable
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
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
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
Several European countries have begun to lead the transition away from
coal. (See data at http://www.earth-policy.org/Updates/Update42_data.htm
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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