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The mining and burning of coal: effects on health and the environment

Amidst the triumphalism of the story of Australian coal lies some dirty truths. Drawing upon international literature, DEA members Bill Castleden, David Shearman, George Crisp and Philip Finch have compiled some of the more worrying aspects of coal’s effects on human health. The article in the Medical Journal of Australia is available for subscription only.

Summary from the MJA

• Australia’s coal conundrum. All political parties say they are concerned about climate change whilst sanctioning an unprecedented expansion of coal mining and coal seam gas extraction in Australia.

• Australia’s coal contributes to climate change with its global health impacts.

• Each phase of coal’s lifecycle: mining, disposal of contaminated water and tailings, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of post-combustion wastes, produces pollutants that affect human health.

• Communities in which coal mining or burning occurs have been shown to suffer significant health impacts.

• The health and climate costs of coal are unseen. In reality coal is an expensive fuel.”
Some salient points.

Health effects of mining coal

There has been no Australian overview of the health effects of coal mining on residential areas in coal mining regions. There is evidence for other countries; coal mining communities in West Virginia USA had an increased risk for developing cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, other lung diseases and chronic kidney disease. Death rates for these diseases were higher in coal-mining areas compared to non-mining areas.

Coal combustion

Coal is burned to generate electricity or to make steel emits many pollutants harmful to human health and increases the major public health problems facing the industrialized world. An Australian review of air pollution by Kjellstrom et al, while not specifically focusing on the effects of coal combustion, summarised the effects of particle exposure on health. The respiratory symptoms and diseases were coughing, asthma, the development of chronic bronchitis and decreased lung function; arrhythmias, non-fatal heart attacks and premature death in people with heart or lung disease; the effects from absorption of toxic material and allergic or hypersensitivity effects. Of the pollutants, the smallest particles PM 2.5, are the most damaging.
“Although burning coal no longer causes London’s smogs or cancer of the scrotum in young chimney sweeps and acid rain from uncontrolled sulphur dioxide has abated (proof that an emissions trading scheme can work), there is overwhelming evidence that coal mining and the burning of coal is harmful to physical and environmental health, and can have significant impact on local communities. Regrettably, peer reviewed environmental health studies from Australian coal towns are sparse”.

Some conclusions

“To persist in mining and burning coal will condemn future generations to catastrophic climate change; clearly the biggest health problem of the future. Australia is a rich and technologically sophisticated country with the second highest Human Development Index in the world. It should have the ability to gradually phase out the use of coal and to expand the generation of electricity from renewable energy sources. Such a change will have the greatest benefit for Australian and global health and for protection of the environment”
“Since this article was submitted the Australian government has announced it will introduce a carbon tax to mesh seamlessly into an emissions trading scheme; the authors support the government’s initiative to put a price on carbon as a significant public health measure”.