Coal most often is discussed in terms of economic development in Montana and Wyoming.
That conversation should include coal’s high cost to people’s health, a physician who wrote the book on the subject said in Billings Monday.
Alan Lockwood, emeritus professor of neurology and nuclear medicine at the University of Buffalo in New York, talked to about 20 health professionals at the Billings Clinic about how mining, transportation and particularly burning of coal damages human health.
Lockwood wrote “The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health,” published last year by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/silent-epidemic-0
Lockwood chose that title because few people are aware that burning coal kills and sickens hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Coal is the leading source of electrical generation in the United States and plays an even larger role in energy production in countries like China.
Burning coal contributes to the four leading causes of death in the U.S. — heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory diseases.
Coal releases more than 60 different pollutants when burned, including sulfur and nitrogen dioxides, particulate matter and mercury.
As research goes on, the number of illnesses connected to coal pollutants grows.
Some studies are beginning to link those pollutants to Alzheimer’s disease and Type II diabetes, Lockwood said.
Further proof of the health effects of burning coal are that peaks in the number of heart attacks and strokes have been associated with peaks in air pollution.
Burning coal doesn’t just cause personal pain for patients and their families. It accelerates the rising cost of health care.
A National Academies of Science study in 2009 looked at 406 coal-fired power plants across the country, including one unnamed plant in Montana, and estimated that additional heath care costs because of pollutants from those plants totaled $62 billion a year.
Because a significant part of those health costs are paid by federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, cutting air pollution would help reduce the national debt, Lockwood said.
Coal-fired plants not only affect people living nearby. Mercury, which affects developing brains in young children, rises into the atmosphere in China, travels across the Pacific, and can land in Montana and Wyoming.
Mercury from China likely reaches the Powder River coal fields faster than coal can travel to China, he said.
Burning coal also is responsible for more than 30 percent of this country’s carbon dioxide pollution, which fuels global warming, which affects people’s health through drought, heat waves, catastrophic weather events and diseases such as West Nile virus.
Global warming is real and many studies have shown it is caused by human activity.
“The rate of change in warming is unprecedented and is not just part of the natural biorhythm of earth,” he said.
He encouraged listeners to ask their legislators to support the Environmental Protection Agency's current clean-air and carbon dioxide emission standards.
Lockwood was also set to speak at Rocky Mountain College Monday evening.
Lockwood is a graduate of Cornell University and Cornell University Medical College. He is the former president of Physicians for Social Responsibility http://www.psr.org/, which is sponsoring his trip through Montana along with Rocky Mountain College Green Group and Plains Justice. http://plainsjustice.org/