Health effects of coal

There is clear evidence from the international health literature that living near coal mines or coal power stations causes serious harm to peoples health.

Burning coal is also the single largest cause of global warming, which the world’s leading medical journal, The Lancet, has described as “the biggest health threat of the 21st century”.


1. Coal kills annually 

2. Coal causes asthma in our children

3. Coal brings enormous numbers of people to doctors and hospitals with respiratory diseases annually

This is part of the reason that studies continue to find that coal has what is referred to as negative externalities of 17.8 cents USD per KWh. A negative externality means that there are quantifiable costs that aren’t priced into the cost of the unit of generation, but that are borne by society outside of the apparent cost of the generation.


Yet there are no primary studies addressing the health impacts of coal in Australia.

Against this backdrop there are at least 30 new coal mines and mine expansions planned for the Hunter Valley. An enormous new coal export terminal in Newcastle that would at least double the region’s coal export capacity is on the verge of approval without any health impact assessment being undertaken.

To download the brief BZE report on health and coal mine click here

To download the full report click here - Full.

The report, “Health and Social Harms of Mining in Local Communities;
Spotlight on the Hunter Region” reviewed 50 international peer reviewed
studies on the health and social impacts of coal mining and combustion.


Quotes from BZE health report

Clear evidence internationally that living near coal mines or coal power stations causes serious harm to health.

Hunter Valley has one of the highest concentrations of coal mining and combustion in close proximity to communities in Australia - yet no primary studies addressing the health impacts of coal.

There are plans to at least double coal mining in the Hunter Valley

Health problems associated with using coal as an energy source in Australia have been estimated to cost $2.6 billion per year.

Summary of health impacts

Adults in coal mining communities have been found to have:

  • Higher rates of mortality from lung cancer and chronic heart, respiratory and kidney diseases.
  • Higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung diseases, hypertension, kidney disease, heart attack, stroke and asthma.
  • Increased probability of a hospitalisation for COPD (by 1% for each 1,462 tons of coal mined) and for hypertension (by 1% for each 1,873 tons of coal mined).
  • Poorer self-rated health and reduced quality of life.

Children and infants in coal mining communities have been found to have:

  • Increased respiratory symptoms including wheezing and coughing.
  • increased absence from school due to respiratory symptoms.
  • A high prevalence of any birth defect, and a greater chance of being of low birth weight (a risk factor for future obesity, diabetes and heart disease).

Communities near coal-fired power plants and coal combustion facilities have been found to have:

  • Increased risk of death from lung and some other cancers.
  • Increased risk of heart attack.
  • Increased asthma rates and respiratory symptoms.
  • Higher rates of preterm birth, low birth weight, miscarriages and stillbirths.

The fumes from diesel have been recently listed by
the World Health Organisation as a carcinogen.


True health cost of electricity from coal in USA

Climate Progress published an article that discussed the true cost of coal when the economic, health and environmental costs are all taken into account. The original research was published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences by Dr. Paul Epstein.

"The report estimates $74.6 billion a year in public health burdens in Appalachian communities, with a majority of the impact resulting from increased healthcare costs, injury and death.

Emissions of air pollutants account for $187.5 billion,

mercury impacts as high as $29.3 billion, and

climate contributions from combustion between $61.7 and $205.8 billion.

Heavy metal toxins and carcinogens released during processing, pollute water and food sources and are linked to long-term health problems. Mining, transportation, and combustion of coal contribute to poor air quality and respiratory disease, while the risky nature of mining coal results in death and injury for workers." Source Think progress

It was calculated that if the true costs of coal was considered the price of electricity from coal fired power stations would rise by about 18 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is far higher than the 3-4 cents wholesale price of electricity currently paid to coal-fired power producers.

Click on this map of USA to see the death rates due to fine particles from coal fired power stations.

The total is 13,000 deaths per year. Source study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force​

Radioactive​ waste from coal

There is very little mention of the fact that: 

"the waste produced by coal plants is actually more radioactive than that generated by their nuclear counterparts. In fact, the fly ash emitted by a power plant—a by-product from burning coal for electricity—carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy."

Other experts feel this is not the case with all fly ash.

"It's more of an occupational hazard than a general environmental hazard,". "The miners are surrounded by rocks and sloshing through ground water that is exuding radon.

Editor's note:

As a general clarification, ounce for ounce, coal ash released from a power plant delivers more radiation than nuclear waste shielded via water or dry cask storage."

Source: Scientific American


PSR - Physicians for Social Responsibility

Physicians for Social Responsibility has released a groundbreaking medical report, “Coal’s Assault on Human Health,” which takes a new look at the devastating impacts of coal on the human body. Coal combustion releases mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health. This report looks at the cumulative harm inflicted by those pollutants on three major body organ systems: the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, and the nervous system. The report also considers coal’s contribution to global warming, and the health implications of global warming.

Their report: Coal’s assault on Human Health


Quotes from the PSR report

Coal pollutants affect all major body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the u.s.: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

.Each step of the coal lifecycle—mining, transportation, washing, combustion, and disposing of postcombustion wastes—impacts human health.

Coal combustion in particular contributes to diseases affecting large portions of the u.s. population, including asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, compounding the major public health challenges of our time. It interferes with lung development, increases the risk of heart attacks, and compromises intellectual capacity.

Coal mining leads u.s. industries in fatal injuries and is associated with chronic health problems among miners, such as black lung disease, which causes permanent scarring of the lung tissues.

In addition to the miners themselves, communities near coal mines may be adversely affected by mining operations due to the effects of blasting, the collapse of abandoned mines, and the dispersal of dust from coal trucks.

after removal of coal from a mine, threats to public health persist. When mines are abandoned, rainwater reacts with exposed rock to cause the oxidation of metal sulfide minerals. this reaction releases iron, aluminum, cadmium, and copper into the surrounding water system and can contaminate drinking water.

Coal washing, which removes soil and rock impurities before coal is transported to power plants, uses polymer chemicals and large quantities of water and creates a liquid waste called slurry. Slurry ponds can leak or fail, leading to injury and death, and slurry injected underground into old mine shafts can release arsenic, barium, lead, and manganese into nearby wells, contaminating local water supplies. once coal is mined and washed, it must be transported to power plants. Railroad engines and trucks together release over 600,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 50,000 tons of particulate matter into the air every year in the process of hauling coal, largely through diesel exhaust.

 Coal trains and trucks also release coal dust into the air, exposing nearby communities to dust inhalation. 8 the storage of post-combustion wastes from coal plants also threatens human health. there are 584 coal ash dump sites in the U.S., and toxic residues have migrated into water supplies and threatened human health at dozens of these sites.
The combustion phase of coal’s lifecycle exacts the greatest toll on human health. Coal combustion releases a combination of toxic chemicals into the environment and contributes significantly to global warming. Coal combustion releases sulfur dioxide, particulate matter (Pm), nitrogen oxides, mercury, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health. Coal combustion contributes to smog through the release of oxides of nitrogen, which react with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, the primary ingredient in smog


A new federal government report has identified coal mining as the leading source of particle pollution in Australia, contributing to a dramatic decline in the nation’s air quality over the past decade. The National Pollutant Inventory report finds coal responsible for 380,000 tonnes of the total 830,000 tonnes of harmful tiny dust particles (PM10 toxins) emitted nationally in 2012-13, and names Queensland as the most polluted state, being home to eight of Australia’s highest-emitting coal mines.

“Particle pollution contributes to a range of cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses yet we have no national uniform legislation to protect the very air we breathe,” said Clean Air Queensland spokesman Michael Kane, who noted that coal burning for electricity generation was also adding to the “toxic load.” Kane said most of the nation’s worst coal mine emitters were found in central Queensland in the Bowen Basin.

The Hunter region in NSW was the next biggest contributor to declining air quality with 53,000 tonnes of PM10 toxins emitted in 2012-13 in the Singleton area alone, 96 per cent of this came directly from coal mining. The release of the data comes just days after a Cleaning the Air report found that 3000 Australians a year were dying as a direct result of air pollution.


Health effects of CO2

Research at Harvard shows that CO2 levels of 1,000 and 2,000 ppm affects our thinking. With the hatmosphere increasing from 350 to 450 ppm it would seem to be not important. However buildings nowadays are better sealed for energy conservation, and this  leads to increased CO2 levels.

“In surveys of elementary school classrooms in California and Texas, average CO2 concentrations were above 1,000 ppm, a substantial proportion exceeded 2,000 ppm, and in 21% of Texas classrooms peak CO2 concentration exceeded 3,000 ppm.”

There is a relationship between high classroom CO2 levels and poor student performance