Initial Publication Date: December 13, 2012

Health Effects of Coal Combustion In China

Author: Allison McCuskey

This case study is part of a collection of pages developed by students in the 2012 introductory-level Geology and Human Health course in the Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University. Learn more about this project.

Coal is a fossil fuel and when burned in factories it creates massive amounts of smoke that can be harmful to human health. This web page will explain and educate the effects of coal combustion in areas of China where it has become an issue.


Coal is formed over many years by dead plant and animal matter. It primarily consists of carbon but coal also contains sulfur, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. As the largest form of energy, coal produces electricity and it is important that we keep coal in our society since it plays such a great role.

Studying coal in China is interesting because the nation is the largest producer and consumer in the world. When comparing China to the United States as far as coal production and consumption rates, they are complete opposites. Within the last 25 years China's coal production has increased steadily at nearly 1 billion metric tons per year. When looking at the US we hardly use any of the coal that we produce (less than 1%). This is because the United States has many other ways of using energy. China however has millions of citizens relying on coal in their everyday. Fluctuating from rural to urban areas, 22-55% of households rely on coal, resulting in many sick people.

Here is a link to a paper by Bob Finkelman, USGS, on Health impacts of domestic coal use in China .

Sources of Pathogens

Many elements can effect humans from the process of coal combustion. One of the biggest issues occurring in China is dental fluorosis or skeletal fluorosis which is a crippling bone disease occurring in the mouth or bones throughout the body. It comes from the process they use to dry corn as they burn it over high-fluorine coals and clay binders. With that said there is evidence selenium caused from coal combustion in China caused human selenium.


Another pathogen of coal is located in southwestern province of China (Guizhou). It has been estimated 3,000 citizens have suffered arsenic poisoning. It appears to be from the consumption of chili peppers dried over fires fueled with high arsenic coal. Besides getting severe arsenic poisoning there has also been a great incidence of children suffering from hearing loss.

Migration of Coal

Many issues surround the production of coal and the industry as a whole. When producing coal there are so many aspects that are important to keep in mind. Waste management is key because water can get polluted if things are not taken care of accurately. This affects human health greatly as we depend on water to survive. Another way the production of coal effects human health is through air pollution. This is probably the greatest hazard the industry has brought on. Not only is it bad for breathing but it also causes acid rain which can travel miles effecting many surrounding areas.

In China there are not many regulations with coal burning especially since people are just able to use it in their homes and sometimes they are burning much more dangerous forms of fuel instead of coal. As far as the migration of coal there is a problem that any coal burning area has to deal with and that is fly and bottom ash (FA and BA). You may be thinking well what is wrong with ash? It happens when you burn nearly anything. Fly ash though is 90% of ash produced which means it gets up into the air pollution and entering lungs of humans. Bottom ash is not as much of an issue because it is not as fine, rather coarse, and tends to sit on the bottom. When fly ash enters the air it particulates into SO2.


Thus far Arsenic and Selenium have been discussed. Mercury is another and most toxic outcome of coal combustion. It is released into the air from coal combustion and eventually concentrates itself into the food chain. Mercury effects the immune, nervous, and reproductive system and is especially harmful to growing fetuses. While the US is responsible for 50% of atmospheric Mercury, the majority of it also comes from coal plants in Asia. You may be asking well how does it get into the food chain? Much like acid rain, mercury is released into the atmosphere and then falls onto the earth with rain or snow. Then through the process of water drainage systems it eventually gets into small organisms whom get eaten by bigger fish and as you can imagine the process goes on. Out of all of the human exposure to mercury it has been found fish is the primary source. Mercury in high doses is lethal so it is important to be aware of what you're eating.

Impacts on Human Health

Breathing in coal ash that particulates into the air as SO2 is not good for human health. This does not just happen in areas near the coal factories either. Surrounding countries such a Japan have experienced huge amounts of acid rain due to air pollution. Such particles have been found in small amounts in countries far away that one wouldn't believe would be traveled. Also, like stated above it enters the food chain in fish so if someone is eating fish straight from the ocean where mercury levels are high they can be effected by the process of coal combustion that way.

Prevention or Mitigation

Within the United States there has been a lot done to make sure citizens are not harmed by the effects of coal. The government has set up programs like land reclamations that assures land will be used or restored to natural habitat after being worked on. There is water treatment and conservation to make sure the water used to clean and sort the coal gets treated to a healthy state. Then there are clean coal technologies such as coal gasification (converting coal to gas) and fluidized bed combustion (FBC) which removes pollutants from coal as it burns.

In China things are not taken care of as intensely. There are medical procedures to fix the arsenic poison and the government has been funding significant amounts of money to install new ventilated stoves but it is still not enough due to the excessive population.

Recommended Readings

Streets , David. Mercury Emissions from Coal Combustion in China. 2009. Print.

Yungchun, Zhao. Arsenic Emission in Guizhou. Elsevier Ltd, 2008. Print.

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