Physicians’ Coal Study raises health concerns

Photo by Mike Willis.

Most of us know that burning coal is bad for the environment. But a study released by the Iowa chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility details the additional troubling ways it affects the health of Iowans.

Here are two key excerpts:

Ninety-two percent of Iowans live within 30 miles of a coal plant, and almost one out of three Iowa children attend school in close proximity to a coal plant. Additionally, Iowa is home to several of the oldest, least efficient and most polluting coal burning power plants in the nation, those grandfathered and exempted from stricter emissions limits after passage of the Clean Air Act in 1977.

This means that not only does Iowa have more power plants per capita than almost all states, but many of Iowa’s power plants emit relatively more pollution per unit of energy produced because of their age. Finally, Iowa also disposes a disproportionate amount of coal combustion waste.

Numerous toxic substances naturally found in coal are concentrated in such waste. Iowa has lax regulations on coal combustion waste disposal and allows waste from other states to be brought into Iowa for disposal. Thus Iowa absorbs the waste from its own plants as well as that produced elsewhere despite the potential health and environmental impacts of the many toxic substances involved….

Products of coal combustion are known to induce or exacerbate asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular, and neurologic diseases. Each of these conditions are increasing in the population as a whole and contribute significantly to four of the top five leading causes of death in the US: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases.

In fact, burning coal contributes to or exacerbates many of the most significant public health problems faced today all around the world. Technologic improvements installed by coal industries lessen the amount of hazardous substances released, yet Iowans across the state, continue to be exposed regularly to coal based pollutants that exceed federal standards– standards that many agree could be much stronger.

Some Iowans are more vulnerable than others to air and water pollution. Children, elders, outdoor workers, and Iowa’s minority populations are more susceptible to the harmful effects of burning coal. The burden in suffering, lost work and school days, and economic costs to Iowa, not just to those directly impacted, is significant.

Nevertheless, coal is rarely mentioned as a potential causative factor in discussing these costly diseases with affected patients or in public health campaign.

And here are the group’s recommendations for addressing the problem:

  • Support funding to more comprehensively track and monitor adverse health events
  • Tightened standards for energy efficiency and their enforcement.
  • A moratorium on new coal plants in Iowa & shuttering of the oldest burners
  • Tightened standards for PM2.5 • Systematized clean-up and containment of coal ash waste at the state & federal level
  • Elimination of coal subsidies and tax and financial incentives.

3 thoughts on “Physicians’ Coal Study raises health concerns

  1. Unfortunately, Iowa isn’t the lone state being taken advantage of by coal and its lax regulations. Iowans and those in other affected states need to act. People in states not directly afftected by coal ash need to act. We all need to act by Friday, Nov 19th, to get coal ash regulated responsibly! On Friday, the EPA comment window closes and will use the comments submitted to decide between Subtitle C and Subtitle D.
    Subtitle C is for CLEAN and safe communities and regulations that save
    money, lives, and environmental integrity. Subtitle D is DIRTY and
    status quo, basically leaving coal ash less regulated than household
    trash. Go to to comment to the EPA and make your voice
    heard. The site is really easy to use and won’t take more than a minute
    of your time. Subtitle C is clearly the way to go- let’s make it happen!

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