London, Our Homes, and the Hidden Costs of Coal

In 1661, activist John Evelyn wrote his anti-coal treatise FUMIFUNGIUM: or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated, in which he pleaded with the King and Parliament to do something about the burning of coal in London. “And what is all this, but that Hellish and dismall Cloud of SEACOALE?” he wrote, “so universally mixed with the otherwise wholesome and excellent Aer, that her Inhabitants breathe nothing but an impure and thick Mist accompanied with a fuliginous and filthy vapour…

It would take nearly 300 more years before any real reform would be passed. In 1952, a four-day coal emissions fog killed roughly 4,000 Londoners. Four years later, the English Parliament would enact the 1956 Clean Air Act, putting an end to the burning of coal to heat London’s homes. It was the beginning of serious air-pollution reform in England, and beginning of the end for London’s famous “pea-soupers”.

At this point you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with my home? Well here is the thing, we are not that far removed from seventeenth century London, we’ve just done a better job of making our coal pollution less visible and its impact more indirect.

Buildings in the U.S. are our largest source of green house gas emissions, accounting for over 43% of our country’s CO2 totals. Our homes make up 49% of the that total or 21% of total CO2 emissions. When you look a bit deeper at the data, about 60% of those emissions can be traced back to purchased electricity from coal fired power plants. So, every time you switch on a light you’re most likely drawing power in whole or part from one of this country’s coal plants. Largely due to our umbilical cord to coal, the average home emits more than twice as much CO2 than the average car!

Before I go any further, I’d like to go on the record that this is not an anti-coal rant. I believe that coal is an important part of our energy future, but we can no longer pretend that “business as usual” coal is not harming our environment and major player in global warming.

Let me give you an example. Where I live in the Front Range of Colorado near Denver we are home to a total of eight coal fired power plants that collectively emit 1,669 tons of sulphur dioxide, 3,849 tons of nitrogen oxides, a whopping 24.6 million tons of carbon dioxide (the equivalent of about 5 million additional cars on the road!) and some 378 pounds of mercury.

In addition, EPA researchers estimate that fine particle pollution from power plants shortens the lives of about 115 Coloradoans each year. Fine particle pollution from power plants in Colorado also causes 21,425 lost work days, 91 hospitalizations and 3,611 asthma attacks every year, 52 of which are so severe they require emergency room visits. In addition, over 750,000 children in Colorado live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant and over 50,000 those children suffer from asthma.

Coal power plants are responsible for 41 percent of the total mercury emitted by all known U.S. Sources and approximately 30% of all lakes sampled in Colorado exceed the EPA fish tissue standard for mercury. A U.S. Geological Survey found that power plant pollution is directly linked to elevated mercury levels.

Mercury is a toxic heavy metal, which, when ingested, can cause serious neurological damage, particularly to developing fetuses, infants, and children. Children can be exposed to mercury in the womb or through breast milk if their mothers ingest mercury tainted fish or by consuming contaminated fish themselves. The neurotoxic effects of mercury exposure are similar to the effects of lead toxicity in children and include delayed development and cognitive deficits, language difficulties, and problems with motor function, attention, and memory.

It’s unreasonable to think that our huge infrastructure of coal fired electric utilities will change any time soon. That will take leadership, followed by enlightened legislation and even if fast tracked one or two decades of focused effort. So the problem will have to met on both the supply and demand side, and a good deal of the demand comes from our homes.

So today in the year 2007, nearly 350 years later, we find ourselves in much the same position characterized by the “fuliginous and filthy vapour(s)” of our friend John Evelyn in seventeenth century London. Aside from our utility bill , most of us never see the effects of our dependency on purchased electricity from coal. It’s most visible “stack” pollution is hidden away from our comfortable urban and sub-urban communities, and when we do read a headline or two about global warming or a mercury contaminated waterway it seems remote and unconnected to any action we might be taking.

Only by raising awareness that leaving that light on is not only costing money, but it is also contributing to the loss of lives and to the potentially devastating effects of global warming, will we collectively begin to take action to reduce demand.

One simple low cost thing we can all do, is to replace the inefficient incandescent bulb in our favorite reading light with a compact fluorescent lamp. It will start paying for itself immediately, use 1/4th the energy, and last up to 10 times longer.

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