Coal-based energy can affect public health at each stage of production. The mining, processing, transportation, burning and disposal of byproducts all produce contaminants that can impact the lungs, heart, nervous system and prenatal development, creating both short- and long-term health concerns. 

Identifying and preventing environmental contamination from these processes is an essential step towards improving public health. Research shows that the cleaner our environment is, the healthier we all can be. 


Beverly May, a nurse practitioner from Floyd County, Kentucky, holds up a contaminated jar of water in the office of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear.

Both surface and deep miners are at high risk for injury at the work place. Deep miners experience high rates of hearing loss.

Mining processes require explosives that, when detonated, can fracture water tables and contaminate drinking water.

Research conducted within the Appalachian region indicates that people who merely live near mining sites face increased rates of illness and death. Health outcomes include lung cancer; heart, respiratory and kidney disease; cancer; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); high blood pressure; low birth weight; and poorer health-related quality of life. 

Surface mining creates significant levels of dust that carry silica and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These contaminants can travel from the mining site and settle on homes in the surrounding area.

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Processing coal creates a significant amount of dust. This can trigger asthma attacks, which can cost up to $6000 for in-patient treatment at a hospital. 


Hauling coal from the mines to a power plant requires the burning of diesel fuel, a fossil fuel that, when burned, creates air pollution such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide.

Burning Coal 

Coal-fired power plants emit significant levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide. Particles smaller than 2.5 microns are released and can move past the lungs causing inflammation, irritating respiratory diseases that can lead to heart attacks and stroke. 

These plants also emit mercury, a toxic that can have significant impacts on the nervous system, especially in fetuses, infants and children. Individuals can experience loss of intelligence that can last a lifetime, in addition to other nervous system disabilities.

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Coal Ash

Coal ash contains toxic metals such as arsenic and cadmium. This waste is stored in impoundment ponds and landfills across Kentucky and beyond. These toxic metals can leak into water supplies or blow into the air, causing cancer and other health problems in people living nearby. 

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Impacts On Climate

Coal extraction and burning processes release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, which are linked to climate change. Climate change impacts public health through heat strokes, flooding, loss of crops, and increased spread of disease.

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