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Washing Away The Myth Of Clean Coal

In the latest episode of Down to Earth, our own Jessica Knoblauch interviews Dr. Alan Lockwood, neurologist and author of the new book, The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health. Dr. Lockwood reiterates eloquently what we’ve known for decades: there’s nothing clean about coal.

Whether you’re mining it, moving it, washing it, burning it, or disposing of it, coal is dirty, dirty business. And one that is killing us.

More than a billion tons of coal are mined every year, putting 130 million tons of toxic waste into our air and water. We are drinking and breathing it, our livestock and vegetation are subsisting on it. The results are strokes, birth defects, developmental delays and respiratory problems. Pollutants such as arsenic, mercury, lead, selenium and cadium—released through the mining, burning and disposal of coal—are among the top 10 causes of death and disease in the U.S.

How come no one knows this? Lockwood says it’s simple: “We’re not used to thinking of coal as being a major threat to health.” The primary narrative of coal is shaped around energy, economics and the very small world of mining safety, not health. That’s what makes this killer so stealthy.

Lockwood says our very slow awakening to the hazards of coal is analagous to smoking—we lauded and built fortunes upon it until it became indisputably evident that cigarettes are deadly. We’ve now reached that same point with coal. The narrative is changing; we can’t be silent anymore.

Lockwood examines coal’s life cycle from its chemical composition to its eventual disposal and the fact that all coal is not created equal (Sulfur content among other things determine its toxicity and its waste treatment.). He also discusses the mythical advantages of “clean coal,”  a misnomer that refers to the process of sequestering its major element, carbon, underground (aka, “carbon capture”). Lockwood asserts that the benefits are questionable at best, and expensive, inefficient and still harmful to our health.

Through his book and interview, Lockwood takes us to the only conclusion: There’s nothing clean about coal.

Listen to Dr. Lockwood's full interview on Down to Earth:

Length: 18 min 30 sec
Recorded: September 2012
[ Download MP3 ]

Tags:  Coal, Coal Ash