A curious observation by Danish epidemiologists caught my eye. Far fewer pre-term babies are being born during the pandemic year. And not only in Denmark, but in Ireland, other European countries, Canada and the US. Researchers have suggested that mothers resting and partners working at home and providing social support may have lowered stress levels. But another interesting suggestion is that lower levels of air pollution may have had a beneficial effect.
Babies born preterm have a higher risk of dying and developing disabilities like cerebral palsy, which seems like yet another compelling reason to address our polluting ways of living.
The 2020 pandemic is exposing many aspects of the ways we live. It is now obvious that the "normal" of pre-Covid was damaging to the lives and wellbeing of people, in a variety of ways. The most clear cut, scientifically studied and worrying challenge facing humankind is climate change. It is and will be far more damaging to us than the pandemic. Politicians and others in power ignored the science around the causes and impact of climate change, even after the devastating bushfires. Perhaps this virus will make them realise that science should be guiding our decisions on such big and complex issues.
In addition to the impact of climate change on global weather patterns, warming, catastrophic bushfires and rising sea levels, there is an immediate and significant impact right here, right now. The adverse impacts of coal burning power stations on the health of people in Australia, are analysed in a new scientific report by Greenpeace, Lethal Power: How Burning Coal is Killing People in Australia.
The evidence is strong that if we create healthy environments early in life (such as not being born pre-term), then the positive impacts are lifelong. I have been increasingly anguished and amazed that the health effects of changing climates have been relatively neglected in our responses to these changes. This report shows that they are causing significant illnesses, deaths, costly care and anguish.
Australians need to know that we have 22 active coal burning power stations. Whilst most are not in cities they are close enough to them to damage the health of residents. The diagrams in this report show how far the particulate matter, nitrogen and sulphur dioxide can travel, with levels way above those considered safe by international standards. And major cities with large populations such as Sydney, Melbourne and Perth with large towns in between have measured unacceptable levels of such pollution.
Australians need to know that stations also emit toxic chemicals such as mercury, arsenic and lead. I was not aware of the level of these chemicals in pollution from coal power stations. I found this data the most scary: these three all cause brain damage in young children and teenagers whose brains are still vulnerable, particularly mercury and lead. They are known to cause intellectual disabilities and in the most severe exposures, cerebral palsy and birth defects. This vital information needs to get to the decision makers in our state and federal governments whose responsibility it is to enable, not disable, the healthy development of our children.
The damaging effects of air pollution from burning coal on the lungs of both children and adults is also described and quantified in this report. Asthma, chronic lung disease and their effects on other organ systems are all higher with exposure to particulate air pollution. These effects are over and above those in coal miners themselves, with black lung still occurring at unacceptable levels in these workers. The cost of burning coal on the health system in Australia was assessed to be over $2 billion every year by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) in 2009.
The data in this report is compelling and build on the already well-established need to phase out coal and encourage the development and use of renewable energy, of which Australia has an abundance. This is their first of a list of urgent recommendations. The report also recommends that we urgently tighten our emission standards, to match the European Emission Directives (Australia is non-compliant). And that in assessing the cost benefits of coal versus other forms of energy, we include costings of the significant health effects of coal. Whilst we have peak health body demands for levels of particulate matter, the report recommends that these be implemented and that more data are collected on nitrogen and sulphur dioxide and their effects on health outcomes.
The last 200 years is littered with the stories of industries damaging the health of the people, from the cotton mills of Lancashire, child chimney sweeps in London, asbestos (everywhere) to mercury in Minamata, Japan. There is not one example of industries caring for the people, preventing exposures or compensating the victims in a timely fashion.
The burning of coal is our biggest global health disaster. Martin Luther King said on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, "We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. We have guided missiles and misguided men". We must continue to fight for our health, and that of our children and their children and convince the misguided men to respond to this report.