How Coal Pollution Harms Your Lungs

Much pollution from coal-burning smokestacks may be invisible, but that doesn’t mean your lungs don’t notice it. That’s the message from medical professionals at the American Lung Association, which has released a new report on the health effects of pollution from coal plants. The report, titled “Toxic Air: The Case for Cleaning Up Coal-Fired Power Plants,” details many harmful side effects of burning coal for fuel, while showing how enforcing and upholding Clean Air Act regulations can curb toxins from coal that cause respiratory illness and death.

According to the new report, coal plants emit eighty-four toxic compounds that pollute the air and which could be reduced by regulating smokestacks or shifting to cleaner fuels. These deadly emissions include hydrogen chloride and other acid gases, heavy metals like lead and arsenic, radioactive uranium and radium, and a host of other compounds such as formaldehyde, dioxin, and benzene. Perhaps most important of all from a human health perspective, coal plants are responsible for forty percent of US mercury pollution. By poisoning the air we breathe and eventually getting into our lungs, pollution from coal plants is making US residents sick and detracting from our quality of life.

What’s the solution to this assault on human health? The American Lung Association recommends moving ahead with new Clean Air Act regulations as the most effective remedy. The US Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of solidifying new pollution standards for power plants and other sources, which it was originally mandated to do in 1990 under Clean Air Act amendments made by Congress. Meanwhile industry allies in the current Congress are trying to block or stall such rules from ever taking effect—and if they are successful, millions of Americans may have to pay with the health of their lungs.

The American Lung Association report on toxic coal emissions is a mark of a growing trend: the increasingly acute awareness among medical professionals that their expertise can be a much-needed impetus to jumpstarting pollution control laws. For more than a hundred years the American Lung Association has been working to reduce the causes of respiratory disease, but the push to eliminate toxins from coal-fired power plants could be its most ambitious undertaking yet. Along with other health groups like Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Association has made clearing the skies of coal pollution a national human health priority.

Will this campaign be successful in ensuring Clean Air Act standards for coal plants are fully implemented? Polls have shown US voters already strongly support the Clean Air Act, and the American Lung Association’s credibility can only serve to enforce the impression that this important law saves lives and health. The outcome of debates over the fate of the Clean Air Act is far from certain at this point, but those who advocate blocking or suspending the law have a tough fight ahead of them.

Photo credit: Joe Crawford