You can view the Coal & Health poster here.
Australia has abundant reserves of coal, which is mined to power the majority of our electricity generation and exported overseas for coking and power generation. Due to the apparent low cost of this abundant resource Australians are enthusiastically exploiting it as rapidly as possible.
Governments receive large royalties from coal mining, and the industry provides jobs and development for rural and regional communities. Yet there are adverse effects of this exploitation, beyond the risks of a two speed economy. Coal is a major driver of climate change, and reliance on supposedly cheap coal has delayed the transition to clean renewable power generation. It is also impacting on productive farming land and consuming precious water.
Coal is a health hazard as every stage of the lifecycle, from exploration, extraction, processing, transport and combustion, produces a waste stream of pollutants that harm human health. Burning coal releases mercury, lead, chromium, carbon monoxide, arsenic and sulphuric acid and fine particulates.. The most harmful pollutants are the smallest particles (PM 2.5) which are inhaled deep into the lungs to cause inflammation and large quantities are being produced in mining and power generation. In the USA exposure to these particles has been shown to reduce life expectancy and in Canada they are estimated to cause 5000 deaths each year. Communities living around mountaintop removal coal mines in the US have a higher incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease, lung and kidney disease, low birth-weights, birth defects and learning difficulties.
Once the health and social costs of coal are accounted for, coal is no longer a cheap energy source. The damage arising from mining and burning coal doubles or triples the true cost of electricity generation1. Due to our addiction to profit making from this dirty energy source we ignore the long term consequences. Just like drug dealers we continue to sell this risky product to user nations. Yet catastrophic climate change is unavoidable if all the coal under Australian soil is extracted and burnt. Taking on “abstinence” from coal mining is required to safeguard our future.
1. Epstein PR et al, Ann NY Acad Sci 2011; 1219: 73-98