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Health impacts of coal mining and power stations on local communities


A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article on environmental justice, as I had been listening to an Energy Gang podcast on the subject.  In this, I looked at a report commissioned in the US, called Coal Blooded.  This week, I came across another similar report, entitled Health and Social Harms of Coal Mining in Local Communities, commissioned in 2012 by Beyond Zero Energy, an Australian based NGO.  This looks at the effect that coal mining and coal fired power stations have, with a particular focus on the Hunter Region, near Sydney in New South Wales (NWS).

Biloela coal mine, Queensland, Australia
Biloela [coal mine][3], Queensland, Australia

Four questions are posed in the report:

  • What specific diseases or other health problems are associated with coal mining in local communities?
  • Are there clusters of these diseases or other health problems in the Hunter Region of NSW?
  • Is social injustice associated with coal mining in local communities?
  • Is there an association between coal mining and social injustice in the Hunter Region of NSW?
  • The findings in response to the first question are  not surprising, but are terrible nevertheless, particularly for children and infants.  The report looks at studies carried out in the US for their literature review, and there is likely to be an overlap between the sources sited in this study, and those used in the Coal Blooded report.

    Health harms associated with coal mining

    Adults in coal mining communities have been found to have:

  • Higher rates of mortality from lung cancer, chronic heart, respiratory and kidney diseases
  • Higher rates cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung diseases, hypertension, kidney disease, heart attack and 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 wheeze, cough and absence from school with respiratory symptoms ‐ however, not all studies reported this effect
  • High blood levels of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium
  • Higher incidence of neural tube deficits, a high prevalence rate of any birth defect, and a greater chance of being of low birth weight (a risk factor for future obesity, diabetes and heart disease).
  • Health harms associated with coal combusting power stations

    Adults (and whole population) in communities near coal‐fired power stations and coal combustion facilities have been found to have:

  • Increased risk of death from lung, laryngeal and bladder cancer ‐ particularly if living close to the plant
  • Increased risk of skin cancer (other than melanoma) possibly due to exposure to arsenic
  • Increased asthma rates and respiratory symptoms due to air pollutants and particulate matter
  • Children, infants, and foetal outcomes in communities near coal‐fired power stations and coal combustion facilities have been found to have:

  • Oxidative DNA damage possibly due to exposure to carcinogenic chromium and arsenic from coal combustion
  • Higher rates of preterm birth, low birth weight, miscarriages and stillbirths associated with products of coal combustion, specifically sulphur dioxide
  • Reduced foetal and child growth and neurological development associated with elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, of which power stations are a significant source
  • Increased asthma rates and respiratory symptoms due to air pollutants and particulate matter.
  • When looking at question 2, focusing on specific health issues in the Hunter Region, there were mixed results, with some studies indicating an added health burden on communities closer to coal related infrastructure, and another indicating that there was no real increase in health issues.

    For question 3, looking at how the benefits and burdens of coal related works are distributed, the study found the following injustices were applicable around the world:

    Environmental damage and perceptions of damage and health impacts

  • slurry (fly ash) spills
  • lack of community awareness of damage
  • distress resulting from concerns and uncertainties about the health impacts of mining related pollution
  • Water quality and human occupations (activities)

  • The impact of water pollution on securing safe water for drinking, producing food, swimming and fishing
  • Social and economic costs

  • the cost of environmental damage to communities and society
  • inability of the community to capture economic benefits
  • social changes inhibiting the generation of alternative means of economic capital to mining
  • socio‐demographic changes resulting in labour shortages in other industries; reduced access to and affordability of accommodation; increased road traffic accidents
  • increased pressure on local emergency services
  • increases in criminal and other anti‐social behaviours.
  • And lastly, the study found that the following social injustice concerns were present for the Hunter Region in particular:

  • Social distress and environmental injustice including concerns over the cumulative health impacts of mining, social divisions and inequalities, feelings of loss and disempowerment, pollution/poor air quality, environmental damage and the potential to impact negatively on future generations
  • Asymmetry of power and influence including access to information, contestation over natural resources, and political conflicts of interest
  • Water access and rights including changes to the NSW water grading system favouring the coal mining industry
  • Failure to protect ‐ specifically, the failure of government and the mining industry to exercise the precautionary principle and protect local communities from potential or actual harms.