What are the negative health effects caused by coal plants?



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    Coal is one of the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels used to generate energy, and the burning of coal for electricity takes a serious toll on human health – both in the United States and worldwide.  From mercury poisoning to increased global warming, compounds released by coal smoke stacks and coal mining pose real dangers to human communities.  It’s partly for this reason a transition away from burning coal to reliance on cleaner forms of energy is of such importance.  Below I’ve compiled examples of some of the most harmful pollutants from coal.
    Mercury Pollution
    One of the most harmful toxins to come from burning coal is mercury.  When released into the environment, this chemical can damage the human immune system, nervous system, and other essential processes.  Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include reduced coordination, and loss of sight, touch, or tasting ability.  Severe poisoning from regular exposure to mercury can cause uncontrollable muscle spasms, impaired speech, and even hallucinations.  In fact, it’s symptoms such as these that gave rise to the phrase “mad hatter” during the 1800’s.  Hatters in England at the time used a derivative of mercury to prepare furs for conversion into hats – and in the process inhaled fumes now known to be poisonous.  Today, coal plants are the single largest source of mercury pollution worldwideand one of the most important sources in the United States.  This toxin becomes particularly hazardous when mercury emitted from coal plants and other sources rains down into streams, lakes, and the oceans.  There it accumulates in the bodies of aquatic organisms, and is in turn ingested by people who eat contaminated fish.
    Ozone Smog 
    Another well-known pollutant from coal plants is ground-level ozone, more commonly known as “smog.”  In fact ozone is not emitted directly by burning coal – but is produced when compounds from coal smokestacks that include nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds combine in the lower atmosphere.  In addition to obscuring the view, ozone smog has a serious impact on human health – especially on the respiratory system.  Exposure to ozone pollution may cause shortness of health, breathing problems, and contribute to asthma.  Though ozone can be dangerous to anyone, people at especially high risk include children, those exercising outdoors in polluted areas, and people who already have some kind of respiratory disease or breathing problem.  Partly in response to growing concern over the effects of ozone pollution, the US Environmental Protection Agency is now in the process of formulating stricter rules to control ozone emissions.  Once finalized, strong new regulations on ground-level will likely help protect thousands of people from one of the most harmful effects of burning coal. 
    Sulfur Dioxide
    The most important source of the pollutant sulfur dioxide is the burning of fossil fuels – especially coal and oil.  Many of the health effects of sulfur dioxide pollution are similar to those people experience from exposure to ozone, and include shortness of breath and other breathing problems, especially in vulnerable individuals.  Also extremely significant, however, is the fact that sulfur dioxide and other pollutants from coal plants are major contributors to acid rain.  Acid rain is producedwhen these acid-forming compounds are released into the atmosphere and then “rain” back down on the earth, either in liquid or particulate form.  Acid compounds like sulfur dioxide in turn increase the acidity of lakes, streams, and soils, sometimes doing extensive damage to aquatic life and forest vegetation.  In the United States, electricity generation through burning fossil fuels – mainly coal – accounts for about two thirds of the sulfur dioxide pollution in this country. 
    Coal Mining Health Effects
    Mercury, ozone, and sulfur dioxide are all toxic compounds emitted from smokestacks when coal is burned to generate electricity.  However the process of mining coal from the ground also causes serious problems for communities near the mine site, leading to a variety of serious illnesses.  In 2008, the American Journal of Public Health reported that counties in West Virginia where extensive coal mining occurs suffer from more cases of chronic health problems as a result of mining activity.  Coal mining in the community was shown to lead to a 70% increase in the risk of kidney disease, a 64% increased risk of lung disease, and a 30% increased risk of high blood pressure in residents.  These health effects seem to be the result of both toxic chemicals uncovered in the coal seems themselves, and of the polluting compounds used during mining and the operation of coal mines.  The health impacts of surface mining – where coal is mined in open pits or by blasting away sections of a mountainside – are significantly greater for nearby communities than are the effects of underground coal mining.  This fact is particularly troubling because surface mining has in recent years become a more and more routine practicefor coal mining operations in many parts of the country.
    Carbon Dioxide
    As dangerous as the pollutants discussed so far can be to human life, the most harmful of all compounds emitted from a coal smokestack is surely carbon dioxide – the most important greenhouse gas responsible for global warming.  Scientists warn that global warming has severe implications for human health, a result of both heat-related illness and the fact that warmer climatic conditions increase the harmful effects of other pollutants.  In fact, a scientific study in 2008 predicted that each increase in global temperatures of one degree Celsius would lead to 1,000 additional deaths each year in the United States alone.  Globally the effects are even worse, with populations in developing countries being particularly at risk.  Today global warming is already believed by scientists to be a contributing factor in five million cases of illness and 150,000 deaths around the world each year.  The health effects of global warming are particularly disturbing because carbon dioxide from coal plants cannot be dependably controlled or reduced simply by installing pollution control technology.  Though a lot of media attention has been granted to the idea of “clean” coal, environmental groups point out that in fact no reliable means of capturing the carbon dioxide from coal plants and safely storing it.  Indeed, carbon dioxide demonstrates more clearly than any other pollutant that the burning of coal is likely to continue contributing to human death and suffering until our society is able to shift to cleaner and environmentally friendly energy sources. 
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