An Iowa Perspective on Coal’s Assault on Human Health

When we consider the use of coal in Iowa, there are many of us who remember the coal trucks plying the streets and alleys of our childhood, dropping loads of the black stuff down chutes leading to a basement coal bin and then to our gravity furnaces. Through the winter, people shoveled coal into burning embers to heat their homes. Coal ash was shoveled out and in the spring, it was tilled it into gardens and spread on fields. Coal ash was also sent to dumps. On the farm, coal was purchased with seeds, feed and grain. It was part of a background to life that did not consider the potential harm to human health we now know it represents.

On Wednesday, November 18, 2009, Physicians for Social Responsibility 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. If we are interested in the environment, social justice and global survival, it is worth reading “Coal’s Assault on Human Health” and you can view the executive summary here or download the entire report here.

The report covers the health risks of the entire lifecycle of coal from mining, washing and transportation to combustion and disposal of the coal ash. The effects of coal on human health are well known. Coal combustion releases mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health. These pollutants cause cumulative harm 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.

In Iowa, the most significant issue regarding coal is its combustion for electricity and energy. A lot of states use coal for energy. The difference with Iowa is that we get 70% of our electricity from burning coal compared to a national average of 50%. Iowa companies have been slow to react to the recently gained awareness of the urgency of controlling emissions to protect human health.

During a public meeting in Iowa City, William Fehrman, President of MidAmerican Energy, stated that 97% of the electricity its company generates comes from coal fired power plants. Energy executives like Mr. Fehrman would not be addressing their ratio of coal to natural gas and renewable in their energy mix unless the United States government were intervening with the proposed CAP and Trade legislation currently in the congress or unless there is a cost savings. The cost of coal electricity to MidAmerican is low.
As you may know, MidAmerican Energy is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which recently bought the BNSF railroad. The BNSF is a major transporter of coal and the acquisition represents, at some level, a step towards a vertically integrated coal operation for Warren Buffet’s company. Companies like MidAmerican Energy appear to be going the wrong way, and resist government initiatives to regulate CO2 emissions.

Another issue is that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is being subject to the same budgetary pressures as the rest of state government. The practice of director Leopold has been to reduce the staff in the compliance area to adjust to budget cuts. At a recent public meeting at Lake MacBride State Park, he indicated that he significantly cut back on inspectors, and this was before the Governor announced a ten percent across the board cut. One hopes that the state remains in compliance with federal regulations. We can expect that the Iowa DNR will do the minimum it can to comply and stay within a shrinking budget.

These budget cuts affect air and water quality monitoring, and mercury is an example of what the Iowa DNR monitors. In a July 21, 2009 post to the Iowa DNR web site, “The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has confirmed the presence of mercury above consumption advisory levels in tissue samples from large mouth bass collected from Red Haw Lake in Lucas County, Upper Centerville Reservoir in Appanoose County, and Grade Lake in Clarke County.” In addition, there have been advisories for fish caught in the Cedar and Iowa rivers. The majority of non-naturally occurring mercury in the environment comes from coal combustion.

From the Physicians for Social Responsibility report and from living in Iowa, it is clear that there are issues with coal that need to be addressed. The trouble is that there are no easy solutions, and while members of PSR understand the health consequences of using coal, the majority of Iowans do not. PSR makes these public policy recommendations, which I quote at length.

“The first of those recommendations is that emissions of CO2 be cut as deeply and as swiftly as possible, with the objective of reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. The reduction of CO2 emissions, an urgent necessity for achieving satisfactory health outcomes, should be pursued through two simultaneous strategies: 1) strong climate and energy legislation that establishes hard caps on global warming pollution coming from coal plants; and 2) the Clean Air Act. Since its enactment, the Clean Air Act (CAA) as implemented by the EPA has been effective in reducing a wide variety of air pollutants, from nitrous oxides to volatile organic compounds. CO2 and other greenhouse gases emitted by coal plants have been designated pollutants under the CAA. The EPA should be fully empowered to regulate these gases under the CAA so that coal’s contribution to global warming can be brought to an end.”

PSR recommends that there be no new construction of coal-fired power plants, so as to avoid increasing health-endangering emissions of CO2 as well as criteria pollutants and hazardous air pollutants.”

“The U.S. should dramatically reduce fossil fuel power plant emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides so that all localities are in attainment for national ambient air quality standards.”

“We should establish a standard, enforceable by the EPA and based on Maximum Achievable Control Technology, for mercury and other hazardous air pollutant emissions from electrical generation.”

 “Finally, the nation must develop its capacity to generate electricity from clean, safe, renewable sources so that existing coal-fired power plants may be phased out without eliminating jobs or compromising the nation’s ability to meet its energy needs. In place of investment in coal (including subsidies for the extraction and combustion of coal and for capture of carbon and other pollutants), the U.S. should fund the improvement of energy efficiency, the expansion of conservation measures, and the research, development, and implementation of clean, safe, renewable energy sources such as wind energy, solar, and wave power.”

“These steps comprise a medically defensible energy policy: one that takes into account the public health impacts of coal while meeting our need for energy.”

As Iowans, implementation of these policies may seem beyond our control. Our best defense is to become more informed of the full costs of burning coal for electricity, including the cost to our health. The cost of electricity produced by coal is more than the price of a kilowatt hour of electricity on our utility bill. As we become informed of coal’s true costs and impacts, we should also engage with our friends, family and elected officials on the issue. The new report gives us a valuable piece of information. Without our reading it and taking action it may be nothing more than more bytes on the internet. Our future depends on each of us making it more than that.

~Paul Deaton is a native Iowan living in rural Johnson County and a member of Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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2 Responses to An Iowa Perspective on Coal’s Assault on Human Health

  1. Anonymous says:

    Is there any evidence that people living in coal burning states are less healthy than people who live elsewhere? Life involves trade offs and most people are willing to accept small risks to have a comfortable life.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your comment Tony.
    I agree that we consider the trade offs of life each day when we rise and tackle the challenges it brings us. I look at getting on an airplane or into my truck to go somewhere as examples of the small risks you mention, and many of us take them every day.
    There is clear evidence of the negative impacts of coal burning on human health, although the emissions from coal combustion are only one of a number of contributing factors. My focus is Iowa because that is where I live, and our study is to my knowledge, the first of its kind.
    However, coal combustion does not recognize state borders, and therefore the comparison you ask about is not really the right comparison, nor has this matter been adequately studied. There are examples.
    Studies of non-naturally occurring mercury in California, Oregon and Washington indicate that more than half of it comes across the Pacific Ocean from the combustion of coal in China.
    When the state of California has studied the health effects of carbon emissions, including coal, they have found that the results of the study have been significant enough to create laws to change emissions patterns. The changes in regulations around the Port of Los Angeles are an example of this, although bunker fuel, diesel, gasoline and other carbon based emissions come into play in this study. Since Iowa's situation is not the same as Los Angeles, all we can do is use the science the studies generated where they may be applicable to Iowa.
    I believe that because of the proven economic viability of some types of alternative energy, as a state, we should continue to pursue them to reduce emissions from coal fired power plants. Wind energy has proven to be viable, and efforts to pursue cellulosic ethanol are at the front edge of alternative energy in Iowa. We know there is a health risk with coal combustion, and with that knowledge, we should do something about it.
    I am with you in that we want a comfortable life. Electricity is a key part of our lifestyle and while we need it, accepting where we are in Iowa with how we currently generate it is not in our best interests from a health standpoint.
    This is not just an Iowa problem. To use a comparison with other states as the basis to refrain from pursuit of alternative energy sources here is the wrong approach. We should do everything we can to reduce the risks of living with others in the world, whether it be related to electricity generation, our health or our workplace.
    Thanks again for your comment.


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