Dr. Alan Lockwood examines how human health is harmed by the
burning of coal.
Coal kills. That’s the message of “The Silent
Epidemic: Coal and the Hidden Threat to Health” by Alan H.
Lockwood, UB emeritus professor of neurology.
His book examines how human health is harmed by the burning of
coal, which supplies nearly half of the energy in the United States
and a far greater percentage in industrializing countries, such as
China, India and Brazil.
While Lockwood says it’s widely accepted that lifestyle
choices are key determinants of health and longevity, air pollution
is underappreciated as a factor behind causes of death in the
“There are these environmental factors that you
don’t have as much control over that are important
contributors to mortality and morbidity,” he explains.
“Coal is a major contributing factor to the top four causes
of death in the U.S.—cancer, heart disease, respiratory
disease and stroke—but I think people are completely unaware
that pollution from coal is responsible for huge numbers of
The book examines how coal is a factor in each of these
diseases. Additional chapters examine the science, politics and
economics of coal burning and global warming.
Beyond the top four causes of death, Lockwood adds, new
scientific studies are beginning to show that coal burning also may
play a role in neurodegenerative diseases, such as
Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Lockwood, a board member with Physicians for Social
Responsibility, became interested in how coal affects human health
while writing a white paper on the subject for the organization.
All profits from the book will be donated to Physicians for Social
“That’s when it really began to strike home with me
that coal was a major source of air pollution damaging the health
of Americans,” he says. “The worst health effects of
coal are felt by residents of states in the Northeastern U.S., east
of the Mississippi, where most coal is burned and where the power
plants are the oldest.”
Coal burning causes disease through two main mechanisms,
Lockwood explains: the inflammatory response that inhaled
particulate matter triggers in the body and the penetration into
the brain of inhaled particulate matter.
Lockwood, who was an early-adopter of solar technology for his
own home, provides advice in the book to consumers on how to reduce
their energy consumption. He also suggests that people become
“energy advocates,” promoting conservation and
sustainable energy sources in public forums and to their elected