Health risks

A short overview

Dr. Michael Hendryx (2008) conducted a study on the human health impacts of coal mining. Accounting for variables of age, income, education, poverty, smoking, and obesity, he found that residents of coal mining communities have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease; a 64 percent increased risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease like emphysema, black lung or coal miners disease; and are 30 percent more likely to report hypertension (Hendryx, 2008).

These illnesses are caused by inhalation of coal dust released into the air during surface mining, preparation, cleaning and transport operations. Another exposure pathway is the chemically treated water which is used to wash the coal and then discharged into surface waters or injected into groundwater (Hendryx, 2008). Residues in these waste waters contain significant amounts of potentially polluting compounds, such as pyrites and marcasites, clays and various trace elements, like heavy metals (Zocche, 2010). These pollutants can increase turbidity and siltation, which impact aquatic life. People who live downstream from coal mining areas may be at risk of accumulating potentially toxic tissue concentrations of some non-essential elements (Zocche, 2010).

Insectivorous bats can be used as bioindicators of human health risks because these animals are at the same trophic level in the food chains as humans (Jones et al., 2009).  Bats use the space above streams, ponds or riparian vegetation as feeding sites (O’Shea et al., 2001; Zocche, 2010) and frequently forage on emerging adult aquatic insects (O’Shea et al., 2001). An extensive study conducted on bats in the lignite mining area of the Catarinense Basin in Brazil showed dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals such as Chromium, Nickel, copper, lead, iron, manganese, cadmium and aluminium in the livers of bats.

This results in high levels of DNA damage in blood cells (Zocche, 2010). The carcinogenic potential of non essential heavy metal compounds has been well established both for humans and animals (O’Shea et al., 2001).

Article from ODT about health risks of Solid Energy’s proposed lignite coal briquetting plant near Mataura

Click here to read the article.

Medical report from the Physicians for Social Responsibility called Coal’s Assault on Human Health.

Their report:

takes a new look at the devastating impacts of coal on the human body. Coal combustion releases mercury, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and dozens of other substances known to be hazardous to human health. This report looks at the cumulative harm inflicted by those pollutants on three major body organ systems: the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, and the nervous system. The report also considers coal’s contribution to global warming, and the health implications of global warming.

To download the report in full or in part, please click here

Coal Ash: The Toxic Threat to Our Health and Environment

Another report from the Physicians for Social Responsibility. This time about the effects of coal ash. You can download a pdf of their report here. Or this page gives you some more background information, including fact sheets and a sheet on Question and Answers. Both reports about based on information collected in the US, but are just as applicable here in NZ.

The Medical Students for Global Awareness (MSGA) have produced a thorough and detailed position paper called

Lignite mining and processing in Southland New Zealand: a fossil-fuelled disaster for current and future generations

which is hosted on the Ora Taiao website and is available to be downloaded at this link: