Burning coal releases pollution into the air, though advanced controls have made the process cleaner. But for decades, studies show that pollution has taken a significant toll on human health.
Dr. Alan Lockwood is a professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo, and on the board for Physicians for Social Responsibility. He’s the author of a book on the effects of coal on health, and will be in Louisville tomorrow to lead a discussion on the subject. I spoke with him via phone from his home.
A few takeaways from the conversation:
Coal burning (and particulate pollution in general) causes a lot of health problems.
“If we were able to list exposure to coal pollution as a cause of death on a death certificate, it would easily be in the top ten causes of death in the United States,” Lockwood said.
There are the obvious respiratory problems that have been linked to coal-fired power plants, like asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer. But there are also more surprising ones, like strokes and heart diseases.
Pollution controls are helping
“It’s very clear that in areas of the country where the concentration of pollutants has gone down, particularly small particles, that longevity has increased,” Lockwood said.
He said the EPA estimates that advanced pollution controls have saved about $2 trillion on health care costs each year—mainly by reducing premature deaths and preventing strokes and emergency room visits—at a cost to industry of about $65 billion.
Proximity makes a difference. Sometimes.
“Studies have shown, for example, that a great deal of the mercury that is emitted from coal-fired power plants comes to the ground relatively close to the site where it’s emitted,” Lockwood said. “Other bits of this mercury go up into the upper atmosphere, and can travel all the way from eastern Asia to Alaska, and now it’s believed that over a quarter of all the mercury in Alaska comes from power plants in China. So it’s really a problem for the people who live close by, and for the people who live seemingly vast distances away.”
The world isn’t going to stop burning coal overnight, but a transition is necessary.
“We really do need to pursue a transition away from burning fossil fuels toward more sustainable, renewable sources of energy,” Lockwood said. “Something like over 10,000 times as much energy as we use each day comes to the earth in the form of energy from the sun. So we don’t have to harness very much of it in terms of a percent to make a huge difference in the number of fossil fuels that we burn.”
Lockwood will speak tomorrow evening at 7:00 p.m. at the Clifton Center (2117 Payne Street). The event is free and open to the public.