The title of a new report from Physicians for Social Responsibility (via the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward) doesn’t pull any punches – it’s called Coal’s Assault on Human Health. While noting that coal mining presents risks to miners and local communities, the report focuses mostly on the health effects of coal combustion. The authors discuss the effects on humans’ respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, and then explore the more indirect health effects from global warming, to which coal-burning contributes:

  • Respiratory effects linked to pollutants from coal combustion include asthma (both development and exacerbation), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stunted lung development, lung cancer, and infant mortality (which may be due to pollution’s effects on infants’ respiratory systems, or on other organs).  Particulate matter, nitrous oxides, and ozone are the pollutants implicated.
  • Cardiovascular effects include cardiac arrhythmias, heart attacks, and congestive heart failure. Particulate matter and nitrous oxides are also the pollutants to watch here.
  • Nervous-system effects include ischemic stroke and developmental delays; particulate matter and nitrous oxides are implicated in the ischemic strokes, while mercury is a neurotoxin that can interfere with neurological development.

The health effects of global warming, to which coal combustion is a major contributor, are more numerous and harder to pin down. The authors identify several conditions that we can expect to see more of, and list some of the health effects that are likely to result. These include:

  • More heat waves will mean more heat exhaustion and heat strokes. Higher temperatures will also increase production of ground-level ozone, which will exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases.
  • Flooding will cause more drowning deaths, and infrastructure damage from flooding will hasten the spread of waterborne bacteria that cause diarrheal disease and other infections.
  • Droughts, extreme weather events, and the loss of agricultural land to saltwater intrusion will reduce agricultural yields, causing hunger, malnutrition, and starvation.
  • These and other problems will contribute to social instability and mental health problems.

The authors note at the beginning of the report that “electricity provides many health benefits worldwide and is a significant contributor to economic development, a higher standard of living, and an increased life expectancy.” Given the high health costs associated with burning coal, though, they encourage us to switch to cleaner sources of energy.