Ask Dr. Coal

Straight Talk About Coal and Your Family's Health

The coal industry would like us all to think “coal is clean.” But it’s not. Burning coal to make electricity can affect us starting at birth with the mercury-contaminated breast milk and blood we get from our mothers, to the increased risk of heart, lung and liver diseases we might die from later in life.



How do mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants affect my baby’s health?

Mercury in mothers' blood and breast milk can interfere with the development of babies' brains and neurological systems and can lead to learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, problems with coordination, lowered IQ and even mental retardation.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

"Very young children are more sensitive to mercury than adults. Mercury in the mother's body passes to the fetus and may accumulate there.

It can also pass to a nursing infant through breast milk. However, the benefits of breast feeding may be greater than the possible adverse effects of mercury in breast milk.

Mercury's harmful effects that may be passed from the mother to the fetus include brain damage, mental retardation, incoordination, blindness, seizures, and inability to speak. Children poisoned by mercury may develop problems of their nervous and digestive systems, and kidney damage."

According to a top Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist, mercury levels in a fetus's umbilical cord blood are 70 percent higher than those in the mother's blood.

Mercury contamination is so widespread that one out of every six pregnant women have mercury levels in their blood high enough for levels in the fetus to reach or surpass the EPA's safety threshold for mercury.

According to the latest government data, this means that 630,000 children are born each year with a strong chance of developing serious mercury-related health effects.


How do emissions from coal-fired power plants impact air quality and respiratory health?

According to the American Lung Association, 24,000 people a year die prematurely because of pollution from coal-fired power plants. And every year 38,000 heart attacks, 12,000 hospital admissions and an additional 550,000 asthma attacks result from power plant pollution.

Asthma is the leading chronic illness among children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asthma accounts for 14 million lost days of school missed annually, and asthma is the third-ranking cause of hospitalization among children younger than 15 years of age.


What kinds of pollution do coal-fired power plants create?

Smokestack emissions from coal-fired power plants are the primary source of mercury pollution in the U.S.

Every year, coal-fired power plants release 48 tons of mercury nationwide.

Coal plants are also the largest contributor of toxic air pollutants, and release about 50% of particle pollution. Particle pollution puts millions of Americans each year at increased risk for heart attacks and strokes, respiratory illness, and asthma, according to the American Lung Association.

Coal-fired power plants emit 59% of total U.S. sulfur dioxide pollution and 18% of total nitrogen oxides every year.

Power plants also release over 40% of total U.S. C02 emissions, a key contributor to global warming.

How widespread is fish contamination as a result of mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants and other sources?

Mercury pollution has made fish caught from many of our lakes, rivers and streams unsafe to eat, especially for women who are pregnant or plan to have kids some day.

According to the American Geological Institute, 49 U.S. states have issued fish consumption advisories due to high mercury concentrations in freshwater bodies throughout the country.

The coal industry downplays the serious threat of mercury in our food chain (particularly in predatory ocean fish like swordfish and tuna), by saying that there’s more “naturally-occurring” mercury in our oceans and rivers so their mercury emissions couldn’t possibly be harming Americans.

I live near a coal mine, is my health risk elevated?

Residents of coal mining communities have increased risk of developing chronic heart, lung and kidney diseases.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that in the 14 counties where the biggest coal mining operations are located residents reported higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension, diabetes, and lung and kidney disease.

What is black-lung?

Black lung disease is a common name for any lung disease developing from inhaling coal dust. This name comes from the fact that those with the disease have lungs that look black instead of pink. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 12,000 coal miners died from black lung disease between 1992 and 2002.

Want to do more?

Check out our section on how you can fight "clean coal" in your community and online.

If not coal, then what?

Check out "There is a Better Way" on how renewable energy technology can power America.