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Up to $242B in Health Costs of Coal Welcome Statistic but Alarming Toll

If we needed another reason to be concerned about our heavy reliance on “cheap” coal for energy, we could find all we wanted in a recently released report from a team at the Harvard Medical School. “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal” (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences) catalogues virtually all the ways coal affects society, from fires in abandoned mines that burn for decades to the tourism implications of the environmentally devastating mining practice known by the chillingly matter-of-fact name “mountaintop removal.”

Harvard’s overall price tag for coal? Up to $500 billion. But what really got our attention was the $140 billion to $242 billion cost the report attached to its public health effects.

I’ve long understood that “environmental” issues are a subset of the overall public health domain, so I was heartened — and aghast — to see a study that affixes a public health price tag not just to illness caused by what are traditionally considered environmental issues (coal combustion and climate change, for example) but to the economy, to the taxpayer.

In each of the major stages of the life cycle of coal, from mining to transport to combustion, there are major health implications and therefore major costs.

These health problems start in mining communities and hit them hardest, and right from the beginning of life. Pregnant women in coal-mining areas of West Virginia are 16 percent more likely to have low-birth-weight babies than those in counties without coal mining. Low-birth-weight and preterm children fare worse in almost all neurological assessments, and as adults they have more chronic diseases, including hypertension and diabetes mellitus.

Heart, lung, and kidney disease are all worse in mining communities, even after controlling for smoking and diet.

When it comes to transport, again, people in mining communities bear the brunt. Moving coal around generates massive amounts of dust, which by itself can increase respiratory and cardiovascular disease. The authors even do the math on railroad fatalities. Seventy percent of U.S. rail traffic is devoted to moving coal, and 246 people were killed during coal transportation in 2007. Using the EPA standard “value of statistical life,” which values each human at $7.5 million, the total comes to $1.8 billion just for transport fatalities.

But, of course, the broadest health danger comes from converting coal to energy. Burning coal gives off CO2, methane, particulates and oxides of nitrogen, oxides of sulfur, mercury, and a wide range of carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals. Those living within a 30-mile radius of a coal-fired power plant are two to five times more likely to have a respiratory illness than those living at a greater distance.

The impacts of SO2, a primary cause of acid rain, include wheezing, exacerbation of asthma, shortness of breath, nasal congestion, pulmonary inflammation, heart arrhythmia, low birth weight, and increased risk of infant death.

The nitrogen-containing emissions (common to the burning of all fossil fuels) cause damage through several pathways, including the forming of ground-level ozone (photochemical smog), which is corrosive to the lining of the lungs.

The report goes on to state, “Estimates of nonfatal health endpoints from coal-related pollutants vary, but are substantial — including 2,800 from lung cancer, 38,200 nonfatal heart attacks, and tens of thousands of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and lost work days.”

It would be nice if we could agree as a society that these problems alone amply justified taking dramatic steps away from coal and toward renewable energy. But we generally don’t find the collective will to take those steps until someone “bottom lines” the economic cost for us. The new Harvard report provides a feast of evidence that, while coal may be plentiful (and even that assumption is questioned), it is hardly cheap. As the report’s authors write, “The economic implications go far beyond the prices we pay for electricity.”

Coal aside, the World Health Organization reports that “climate change affects the fundamental requirements for health — clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter.” Unfortunately, a survey commissioned by EnviroMedia last November shows nearly half of Americans don’t believe their personal energy use affects the health and living conditions of those in developing nations. And a quarter of Americans believe coal is a renewable resource. (See graphics showing the results of a telephone survey of 1,022 adults conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, +/- 3.2 percent margin of error.) While it’s sad to see this kind of disconnect among Americans, maybe the quarter-trillion-dollar health costs of coal will get the attention of U.S. households.

Valerie Davis is CEO and co-founder of EnviroMedia Social Marketing, which creates behavior-change campaigns for a healthier planet, with offices in Portland and Austin.

Valerie Davis
Valerie Davis is CEO of EnviroMedia Social Marketing and President of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting.
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6 thoughts on “Up to $242B in Health Costs of Coal Welcome Statistic but Alarming Toll

  1. This is just more of dishonest, liberal propaganda. Coal gives us affordable electricity which in turn brings people out of poverty and the ravages of weather related sickness and deaths and by allowing people to heat and cool their homes without going to the poor house. I can not express the disdain I have for those who have little understanding of how average people deal with the day to day problems of life.

  2. This valuable research above only reinforces the price we and our children pay for corporate greed. The Coal and power industry has had ample time to change there ways and move to sustainable alternatives and move away from coal and oil. Corporate greed, low IQ’s in senior management and living in a vacuum only amplifies the issues. Keep up the good work Valerie, America’s children need you.

  3. Jack, I wonder if you yourself are caught up in an ideological battle, which is the last thing we need. Sure, there are benefits from coal, but give yourself a little room to hear and investigate both sides of the story. I’d hate to hear that you work for a coal company and you’re just doing you’re own advertising. I’d be happy to forward you credible evidence that suppoorts this ‘liberal propaganda’, if you’d be prepared to open your eyes. Regards.

  4. Let’s not forget that shale gas (natural gas) mining will also be removing the tops of mountains in order to keep that resource coming. Coal is not the only thing out there that is damaging the earth. We need to take responsibility as a society to reduce our energy usage and work together to make alternative energy technologies a reality. Until then, coal is keeping most of our lights going, isn’t it?

  5. A National Academy of Science report “Hidden Energy Costs” covers health costs for all major fuel sources. It put dirty coal plants as the most costly at 60 billion per year. With other alternatives becoming available perhaps it is time to evaluate health consequences as a price for any given fuel. The worse the health consequences the higher the “sin” tax.
    In a free market fair market price should include “hidden” costs.

  6. Southern Wyoming’s economy is heavily influenced by the prices of natural gas. The well head price of natural gas in about the same as it was in 1988. My question are the political decisions to support coal over natural gas made by campaign dollars ? (the volt car, not pushing for hydrogen power of rail road power, not pushing for natural gas power for power plants )

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