Health hazards of coal

Contains carcinogens and particulates that can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular problems, and cancers


COAL (from the Old English term col, which has meant “mineral of fossilized carbon”) is a relatively cheap and more accessible source of power. Environmentalists, however, are worried that should coal plants be allowed, it could harm the ecology and jeopardize the health of the communities where the plant is located.

Coal may contain high heat content at economical costs, but many environmental problems are associated with its use. “Coal has long been linked to air pollution and ill effects on health,” pointed out Seth Dunn in a special report published in World Watch. Particulate matter (dust, soot, and other solid air-borne pollutants) and Health hazards of coal sulphur are two of the most unhealthy byproducts of coal combustion.

“Particulates penetrate deep into lungs,” explained Dunn. “Prolonged inhalation causes a range of respiratory and cardiovascular problems, such as emphysema, asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart disease. It is also linked to higher infant mortality rates. The smallest particles can stay in an individual’s lungs for a lifetime, potentially increasing the risk of cancer. Sulfur dioxide exposure is associated with increased hospitalization and death from pulmonary and heart disease, particularly among asthmatics and those with existing breathing problems.”

Coal smoke contains potent carcinogens, affecting the more than one billion rural poor who rely on the fuel for cooking. According to the Geneva-based World Health Organization, rural indoor air pollution from such cooking accounts for 1.8 of 2.7 million global annual deaths from air pollution, with women and children most at risk.

“Coal also contain arsenic, lead, mercury, and fluorine — toxic heavy metals that can impair the development of fetuses and infants and cause open sore and bone decay,” Dunn pointed out.

Environmental problems

Burning of coal releases pollutants that help contribute to acid rain. “When fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas are burned, many substances are emitted into the air,” explained H. Steven Dashefsky, author of Environmental Literacy: Everything You Need to Know about Saving Our Planet. “Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen compounds, and particulates are three such substances, and are considered primary pollutants responsible in part for air pollution.

“These substances travel through the air and react with each other in the presence of sunlight to form secondary pollutions, such as sulfuric and nitric acids. When these acids fall to earth with rain, it is called acid rain.”

The most apparent damaged caused by acid rain is the destruction of statues that crumble from the acids, but the most serious effects are less noticeable. Studies show acid rain at levels below 5.1 kill fish and destroy aquatic ecosystems since most organisms have narrow pH tolerance ranges.

Acid rain also weakens and kills trees and stunts the growth of crops and other plants.

In addition, the coal burning may release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere thus causing the climate change phenomenon.

“Ranging from less than 20 to more than 98 percent in carbon content, coal is the most carbon-rich fossil fuel,” Dunn informed. “The industrial era’s heavy combustion of these fuels is short-circuiting the global carbon cycle, building up atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to their highest point in 420,000 years.”

Studies have shown that coal-fired electric power generation emits around 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt-hour generated. This is almost double the approximately 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide released by a natural gas-fired electric plant per megawatt-hour generated.

But there’s good news. “New technologies can burn coal more efficiently and more cleanly,” Dashefsky noted. “This includes the fluidized-bed combustion method, which will begin replacing old style coal burners. It converts solid coal into gas or liquid fuels called synfuels.”

Coal gasification converts solid coal into a gas synfuel called synthetic natural gas. Coal liquefaction turns it into a liquid synfuel such as methanol. Both types of synthetic fuels produce much less air pollution than burning solid coal.

“Liquid fuels are more functional than solid fuels for heating homes and running automobiles and other forms of transportation,” Dashefsky pointed out. “They can also be transported through pipelines whereas solid coal must be shipped.”

VitalSigns Issue 63 Vol. 3, May 1-31, 2014