Coal's Hidden Health Hazards

Feature Story - 2010-09-02
Did you know that mercury from coal combustion can travel more than 1,000km? That's the distance from Guangzhou to Shanghai. Learn more about coal's health impacts, as well as ten tips to reduce your exposure to air pollution.

Nanshan District is full of disused coalmines and coke heaps. The area is strewn with the detritus of the coal industry.

Did you know that mercury from coal combustion can travel more than 1,000km? That's the distance from Guangzhou to Shanghai. Learn more about coal's health impacts, as well as ten tips to reduce your exposure to air pollution.

Air pollution is a reality for many of us living in China, with "foggy" skies and coal stacks a common sight. Less noticeable, perhaps, are the many health effects of coal combustion.

But coal is a stealthy specter in our air: after burning, its particles remain in the air, and we breathe in a little of it everyday. This may not seem like much, but these particles can build up over time in our organs.

Over a period of time, pollutants from coal can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular disease, weakened immunity, cancer, birth defects, and endemic diseases. Many of these are chronic, long-term disorders that can shadow much of a person's life.

China derives 70% of its energy from coal, making it the biggest environmental problem we face today. Sadly enough, many people in China are unaware of the full spectrum of coal's damaging health impacts.

To address this problem, Greenpeace China has released a report to promote public understanding of the many health problems caused by pollutants from coal. You can download The True Cost of Coal - Air Pollution and Public Health in easy-to-understand Chinese (written to be accessible for everyone) or an English-language summary.

We at Greenpeace are campaigning for an energy revolution in China, so that we can abandon coal in favor of clean renewable energy.

In the meantime, however, you can protect yourself and your family with these ten tips to reduce exposure to air pollution n your life:

1.      Monitor air-quality reports everyday, so as to best plan outdoor activities. Understand the Air Pollution Index (API).

2.      API readings between 101 and 150 are considred unhealthy for sensitive groups: Children, seniors, pregnant women, and other sensitive people should minimize outdoor activities and see a doctor in case of discomfort.

3.      API readings between 201 and 300 are considered very unhealthy. Everyone should avoid outdoor activities as much as possible.

4.       Open windows in your home from time to time, to maintain air circulation.

5.       Plants are a green and sustainable way to purify air indoors. Some good house plants include ivy, cacti, spider plants, aloe, and sansevieria (snake plant or mother-in-law's tongue).

6.       When choosing a home or office, avoid locations near power plants and other sources of air pollution, if possible.

7.       In the summer, do not exercise outside earlier than 6am, the most polluted time period when air pollutants have settled and do not disperse easily.

8.       If you burn coal indoors, be sure to use and regularly clean the ventilation pipes/ducts.

9.       Use energy-saving, efficient home appliances. Buy refrigerators and air-conditioning systems that use natural refrigerants such as ammonia, carbon dioxide and non-halogenated hydrocarbons, instead of fluorocarbons and hydrocarbons.

10.     Be conscious of energy use and develop energy-conscious habits such as switching off lights and appliances.

Read our report on the health hazards of coal

Learn more about coal's contributions to goal climate change

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