Engulfed in a Toxic Cloud: The Effects of Coal Mining On Human Health

| February 1, 2012 | 0 Comments

The continued growth of coal mining has left communities with pervasive and irreparable damage. Until recently, however, the effects of coal on human health have been largely ignored and mining has continued without many appeals for improvement. In both the United States and China, industrial achievements have created a legacy of pollution that is taking a major toll on human health.

Despite relatively modest concentrations of hazardous air pollutants and the sophisticated pollution control systems employed in the United States, recent studies have proven that the resulting health effects of mining can be devastating. Such facts have largely been ignored, especially in Appalachia, an important American coal region.

X-Ray near coal-fired plant in China. (Courtesy of Greenpeace)

Dr. Michael Hendryx, a researcher at West Virginia University, began uncovering alarming ailments resulting from coal production. Hendryx told the HCGHR, “When I first started talking to my colleagues about it, their immediate reaction was somewhat skeptical. They assumed that if there were significant health problems that those problems were the result of poverty or some other socioeconomic disadvantage.” Hendryx explained, “Their own assumptions got the better of them.”

As a result of their proximity to coal mines, members of these mining communities are plagued by higher chronic heart, respiratory, and kidney disease mortality. Hendryx also discovered that the rates of birth defects are significantly worse in Appalachia, with defects ranging from circulatory and respiratory issues to central nervous system problems.

In addition to the adverse health effects in mining communities, negative social impacts have also arisen as a result of the establishment of mines. Coal mining has taken place in Appalachia since the 1700s, but practices have changed within the last 30 years. “The mechanization of mining has become so advanced, that there are not that many human jobs that are required anymore to run a coal mine,” Hendryx explained. As a result, communities are left with fewer job opportunities as well as greater adverse health effects.

Coal has been the cause of major health issues in China as well. With a denser population and more widespread usage of the resource, coal mining has caused significant air pollution.

As the result of major reforms, economic development in China has reached spectacular heights. The economic boom has been matched with an increase in energy production and in turn, a rise in negative health effects. In fact, pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death and has left a grey cloud over the nation. China now produces three billion tons of coal every year. China’s rapid economic growth has led to the deteriorating health of the Chinese population.

Coal ash disposal site in Chine ( Courtesy of Greenpeace)

Economic growth has not necessarily meant technological advances in coal mines. Dr. Sun Qingwei, a coal campaigner for Greenpeace China, stated in an interview with the HCGHR, “Traditional coal mining is labor intensive. The reason is that the technology is underdeveloped.” China is plagued by a continually increasing level of dependence on coal for domestic and energy uses. Paradoxically, China’s greatest achievement has evolved into its most burdensome problem.

Similar health concerns to those in Appalachia have been found in mining communities in China. Qingwei reports, “There is a widespread problem with children and birth defects near coal mines, especially in the Shangxi province, which has been the largest coal producer in China.” Despite these reports, research on Chinese coal production is lacking, and most data is inconclusive.

Domestic uses of coal for heating and cooking can be especially harmful because the coal is generally mined locally, with minor regard to their chemical composition. Poor ventilation in homes further exposes residents to the dangerous emissions. In fact, more than 75 percent of China’s primary energy needs are supplied by residential coal use.

Will improved policy even be effective? Hendryx is skeptical that coal can ever become “clean.” The US federal government intends to put a lot of money into carbon capture and sequestration from coal fired power plants, but these plans only address how coal is burned, not the practices of extraction, processing, or transporting prior to burning.

“It’s an exceedingly dirty product from start to finish,” Hendryx says. He noted the extraordinary resources required to extract coal – heavy equipment, chemicals to treat the coal, and vast amounts of water – and remarked, “Even the cleanest coal burning power plants still produce more greenhouse gases, more mercury, and more pollutants than any other form of energy that we have.”

Researchers in China share this sentiment. In light of these recent findings, China is taking strides to alleviate their growing coal problem. The Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning predicts that the government will allocate about $454 billion for environmental protection, which is more than double the previous cycle’s allocation. However, the rate of economic growth in China is hard to keep up with. “Greenpeace thinks that China should switch to renewable energy, like wind-power and solar energy,” Sun says, “China is now the biggest producer of solar energy, so we think that China has been doing well, but its not, because China’s economic growth is so rapid that the government should be doing more to produce its share of renewable energy.”

Therefore, the alternative to “cleaning” coal requires serious economic diversification programs and a complete rearrangement of current energy sources. In mining communities, coal has become the most serious public health issue, and only some of the adverse health effects have been uncovered. In order to curb the growing problems, China and the United States must diversify their energy sources and eliminate the lingering pollutants.

Category: NCDs, Panorama, Spring 2011

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