The heat is on for change: coal
Article republished from The Australian July 10, 2010
Research in the US has shown coal pollutants affect all body organ systems and contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the US: heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic respiratory disease.
Each step of the coal life cycle -- mining, transportation, washing, combustion and disposing of post-combustion wastes -- affects human health. In Australia, research is lacking but there is no reason to believe similar effects are not occurring in coal communities here. To deny it would be akin to holding smoking causes lung cancer in the US but doesn't in Australia.
The health burden of coal in Australia is estimated conservatively at $2.6 billion a year. There are also economic losses due to land pollution and degradation and the open mining of good agricultural land in the face of the projected world food crisis.
Morbidity and mortality are increasing in the developing world as the effects of climate change take hold of the environment. As the world's fourth largest producer of hard coal and the world's biggest exporter, from which we garner $20bn each year, our contribution to this pollution is far greater than our culpability as the world's greatest domestic per capita producer of greenhouse emissions.
Let us approach this as a medical problem. The climate change moral challenge referred to by former prime minister Kevin Rudd is even more compelling for the medical implications. For a wealthy country to fail to take necessary measures and to wait for others to do so can be seen as amoral. Communities in many mining regions are worried about pollution. They write to us expressing concern about their children's asthma.
There are a number of pollutants released from fossil fuel combustion. These include nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide, and fine particles measuring 2.5 micrometres or less, which penetrate more deeply into lung tissue than larger particles and are considered particularly hazardous to health.
In the US, exposure to these particles has been shown to reduce life expectancy. Their monitoring in Australia, especially in the areas where pollution is generated, is patchy or non-existent.
Environmental injustice can be defined as the disproportionate exposure of socially vulnerable groups to pollution and its associated effects on health and the environment, as well as the unequal environmental protection provided through laws, regulations and their enforcement. However, incomes in some coal and electricity generation townships are higher than the national average and the injustice relates not to poverty but to health inequality caused by government inaction.
For state governments to disregard pleas for action by parents whose children are suffering from pollution is a denial of their fundamental obligations to public welfare. Many in the medical profession have expressed support for the federal government's intent to improve and reorganise medical services.
The government has extolled preventive health and taken action on smoking. Pollution is an area of abject failure that government can attack. It is one of injustice and neglect, with state governments and corporations reaping the economic benefits of coal production and export.
Where states have failed to deliver on improved standards and delivery, federal intervention is needed.
The Upper Hunter region in NSW has been identified as an area where residents, civil society and local government groups struggle with corporations and state government over the burden of ill-health caused by air pollution. There is ample evidence of inaction by state authorities. There is regulatory inertia and denial of public requested air monitoring, which has extended to mines where air pollution is of concern to local communities.
At one such site, an air quality panel is finally being established after many years.
Mines cannot be closed precipitously, for unemployment has personal and family health impacts. However, Doctors for the Environment Australia, in its energy policy (available at www.dea.org.au; click on Policy on main menu) opposes any new mines, particularly those ravaging good food-producing land.
For existing mines we recognise the inevitable in terms of our future national and international commitments, and urge planning for the rapid introduction of renewable energy industries into coal mining regions.
Renewable energy industries create more jobs than coalmining; they are generally safer and much healthier for workers and communities. They will offer sustainable economic development in an area where Australia already trails other developed nations. The federal government's proposed resource super-profits tax -- now recast and rebadged as the minerals resource rent tax -- will aid this transition.
We ask why, in a wealthy, developed country like Australia, which reaps billions of dollars from the export of coal, are we neglecting the health and wellbeing of entire mining communities? Where are the health impact studies?
This is environmental injustice, with inhabitants being disproportionately exposed to pollution and its associated effects on health and their environment.
David Shearman is emeritus professor of medicine, a practising physician and honorary secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia.