As the daughter of an engineer at a coal-fired power plant, I've lived most of my life near coal plants and was glad I could attend a lecture last week by Dr. Alan Lockwood, author of the book The Silent Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health.
Like most of us, I'd heard some of the statistics before, though I was especially astounded when Dr. Lockwood stated that approximately one-third of all U.S. citizens live in counties in which the EPA's National Ambient Air Quality Standards are not met. I wonder where Missoula stands? Air quality isn't only local, as Lockwood noted. Pollution from East Asia is windswept to the Pacific Northwest, right back to western Montana.
Burning coal is not only harmful to the environment and exacerbating climate change, it is also extremely harmful to our health. Lockwood cited studies in which coal combustion has been shown to be positively correlated with increased incidences of cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary, lung and kidney diseases. This is quite frightening and reminded me of conversation I recently had with my father. He has had asthma for most of his life, but during a two-week shutdown at his plant, he told me that he didn't need to use his inhaler once and could breathe much easier than usual.
The negative health effects associated with burning coal are enough to bring about a shift in policy, even without bringing the still contentious topic of climate change into the debate. Now is not the time to decrease renewable energy development, which is what happened last week in the Montana Senate with Senate Bill 31 and Senate Bill 45. We desperately need a shift away from our reliance on coal, and I hope that Lockwood's message, with its focus on human health, could help bring us there.