The Silent Epidemic Assesses Health Costs of Coal

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This is the story of coal—its economic importance, abundance, environmental consequences and harmful effects on human health. Author Dr. Alan Lockwood, professor of neurology and nuclear medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo, contends that health consequences emerge from every step in coal production and use—beginning with mining and ending with toxic waste in the air, soil and water.

The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health (The MIT Press) grew out of a white paper by the group Physicians for Social Responsibility. Lockwood, lead author of that paper, realized there was much more that deserved explanation. In The Silent Epidemic Lockwood explores clinical, political, policy and economic implications of using coal. We learn it is a vital energy source around the world and that it generates nearly half the electricity in the U.S. The U.S. has about 28% of the world’s supply (China, in comparison, about 13.5%).

Lockwood contends that coal’s widespread use has both dramatic and insidious effects. Washing coal, part of its production process, creates coal slurry, a sludge that must be stored as waste. He relates stories of disasters like the Buffalo Creek Mine dam collapse that released a flood of black, liquid waste that killed or injured more than 1,000 in 1972. He also explores the less readily apparent effects of coal pollutants on cells and tissues and then examines that impact on human respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems. While the book brims with research findings to support his conclusions, Lockwood explains their meaning in clear, accessible language.