Exposing the Human Cost of the World’s Filthiest Fuel

Directed by Alexia Prichard

The Dirty Truth About Coal is a half-hour documentary film about the effects of emissions from coal-fired power plants on public health. What sets the film apart from other films about coal-based energy production is that I focus on how emissions from coal-fired power plants affect everyone living in the continental United States, rather than a select geographic area. By showing how and how far coal smog travels, the film will enlighten the general public about the direct threat coal plants pose to air quality nationwide and, therefore, to every viewer’s and their family’s health. In this way, the film will encourage discourse among voters and policymakers to affect a change.

Through interviews with scientists, physicians, activists, and legislators, The Dirty Truth About Coal will educate people about the toxic air pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants, and show that no one is immune to their effects. The information in the film will be delivered using graphics and animations in a way that’s accessible and engaging, and intimate interviews with Massachusetts, Chicago and Utah residents living in areas most closely affected by local coal production, will expose the true cost of coal-the human cost-and thereby help people make informed choices about where they want their electrical energy to come from.

“People often talk about coal being a cheap source of energy, but we’re paying for coal in lots of ways. We’re paying for coal in the cost of healthcare, in the cost of human suffering, and this is only at the combustion stage. … What I try to let people know is, you might not even realize what impacts you’re getting from coal, but every day that you’re breathing in that air your lungs are suffering, your health is suffering, and whether you’re paying for a hospital visit that day or you’re seeing premature mortality in the community’s death rates, you’re paying for that pollution. And right now the power plants aren’t..” (Shanna Cleveland, Staff Attorney, Conservation law Foundation, Boston, April 2010)

Do you know where your electricity comes from? Do you know how it gets to your house? Do you know what chain of events you set off when you turn on a light? Few Americans know the answers to these important questions. But, if we did, it could save each of us hundreds–possibly thousands–of dollars in electric and healthcare bills per year, and the nation hundreds of thousands–possibly millions–of dollars in energy costs per year. These answers, and taking action to change our reliance on coal, could also save lives by considering alternative energies that bring miners up from the mines, and coal plant workers out of the dangerous plant. In other words, what we don’t know about how the national electrical grid works is costing all of us money, and some of us our lives.


In August 2007, I read an article about Senate Bill S.154, the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Energy Act of 2007. Coal-to-liquid is the process of turning coal into an alternative fuel for cars and planes and is very costly. The more I read, the angrier I got because it seemed that, once again, the legislature was appeasing big industry and ignoring cleaner and safer existing alternative energy technologies like solar and wind power. Being a television producer, I decided to make a film to see what I could do to help reverse this dangerous trend.

Coal Smog Travels

The biological gift our species takes the most for granted is breathing. We do it every second of every day for our entire lives, so we tend to not think about it very much. But, we can’t live without it. We can go for days without eating, and hours without drinking water, but if we stop breathing for just a few minutes, our lives are over.

So, what would happen if our precious air was suddenly compromised? What if instead of breathing clean, fresh air that helps us grow, we breathed soot containing toxic chemicals? Moreover, what if your child contracted asthma in Connecticut from air pollution generated in Illinois, or your grandmother in North Carolina died from a heart attack due to pollution that originated in Tennessee?

The biggest myth about air pollution from coal-fired power plants is that it doesn’t affect people living far away. The idea is that if you can’t see the plant then it’s not hurting you. Yet, this is simply not true. Every year, thousands of Americans all over the country die from health complications related to emissions from coal-fired power plants upwind of them because coal smog travels. In 2009, the North Carolina Department of Justice proved this when it won it’s suit against energy producer, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The state of North Carolina contended that pollutants generated at TVA coal-burning power plants in Tennessee and Alabama were having adverse effects on the public health and environment in their state. As a result, the TVA is required to implement reductions in emissions from the four TVA plants closest to North Carolina, and to provide bi-annual reports of their progress every January and July until all of these court-imposed requirements are met. (The State of North Carolina vs. The Tennessee Valley Authority, January 2010)

In their suit against the TVA, the North Carolina Department of Justice sought testimony from Dr. Jonathan Levy of the Harvard School of Public Health, whose May 2000 study of two coal-fired power plants in Massachusetts, the Salem Harbor and Brayton Point Power Stations, showed how the plants’ emissions were responsible for illnesses and deaths close to as well as far away from their source.

“ What we discovered was that, first, the highest concentrations from these two power plants, or their biggest contributions to exposures, did tend to happen closer to the plants, and then, clearly, as you got further away, the impact was less, but it didn’t drop off so dramatically that there were no effects at longer range. For the Massachusetts study we estimated something on the order of 70 premature deaths per year…associated with the two power plants, and then much larger numbers for the less severe health outcomes, and these were spread across a fairly large population of, you know, over 30 million people in our domain, but it’s still an appreciable magnitude from a public health perspective especially only looking at two power plants when there are hundreds or thousands of power plants nationally.” (Dr. Jonathan Levy, Harvard School of Public Health, re May 2000 study of MA coal-fired power plants, December 2009)

The Pollutants

A typical coal-fired power plant has an average life expectancy of 50 years. After that time has passed, it is expected that the plant will be shut down. In the continental United States today there are 614 active coal-fired power plants (Energy Information Administration, January 2005) providing roughly 50% of the electricity on the national electrical grid. Of these 614, any plants that were built after the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 are required by law to have modern pollution controls on them. These controls help to decrease the amount of pollutants emitted by a plant, but don’t remove the pollutants completely. Any coal plants built before 1970–of which there are roughly 50 across twelve states, (Clean Air Task Force, 2004)–including some that were built as far back as the 1920s, are considered “grandfathered” under the Clean Air Act, and, therefore, not required to have modern pollution controls. The result is that the older plants release thousands of tons of pollution into the air per year.

We now know that CO2, one of the chemicals emitted from coal-fired power plants, is the leading cause of global warming. But, CO2 isn’t the only pollutant coming out of the stacks of a coal-fired power plant. Plants also emit noxious chemicals including sulfates and nitrates, chemicals that when combined with molecules in the air form a smog of toxic particles–sulfur and nitrogen dioxides–called “fine particulate matter,” or PM2.5, as it is known in scientific parlance.  These particles are so small they can get into the deepest recesses of our lungs, and that if ingested in sufficient amounts, can be deadly.

“When you breathe in you’re basically taking everything that’s in the air at least into your nostrils. The big particles, which may hold chemicals or other toxicants, stop at your nose, the smaller ones go farther down, and if they’re really small particles they’ll make it all the way down into the alveoli, the little air sacks. The membrane in the alveoli is one cell thick so the oxygen can pass through easily. But unfortunately, it’s so thin that other stuff can come through too, and that’s where your exposure to the pollutants is worrisome. Typically air pollution toxicants that are breathed down into the level of those very small air sacks cause inflammation. Right there in the lungs. Inflammation causes the airways to swell up and get smaller, making it difficult to breathe and that causes wheezing. So when asthmatics wheeze it’s because their airways got small. All of us will wheeze eventually when we’re exposed to a high enough dose of the toxicant that’s coated on that particle, but there’s a lot we don’t know about exposure. We’re finding out more and more that lower and lower doses are causing health effects that we didn’t realize before.” (Dr. Susan Buchanan, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor, Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences, School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, October 2009)

Aerosol emissions from coal-fired power plants in Massachusetts and Illinois are responsible for roughly 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks annually (Harvard School of Public Health, May 2000 & September 2001). However, if you ask the average U.S. resident where their electricity comes from, most don’t know. Worse, most people are unaware that the pollution from these plants is affecting them because PM2.5 particles are so small that they are usually not visible and can be carried on the wind for hundreds of miles. In other words, they can be carried from state to state. Because there are so many coal-fired power plants in the U.S., there is literally nowhere in the country that is unaffected by this type of air pollution. So, if you’re younger than about 45 years old, you’ve probably never taken a clean breath of air in your life.

The National Electric Grid and Public Health

“It’s very difficult to be able to pinpoint how the environment leads to health issues we have…but what you can inform people of is where does the coal come from? What do they do with the coal? How does the making of electricity with the coal lead to air pollution? Where does that air pollution fall? You know, and when it lands, what does it do on the ground? How does that then directly affect you? (Kim Wasserman, Coordinator, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Chicago, June 2008)

One end of the U.S. electrical grid is in each home. The other is in a power plant. The national electrical grid system is activated when you turn on a light because the simple act of turning on a light creates demand, or, the need for electricity to flow into your lightbulb.

Fifty-four percent of the electricity in the United States is generated at coal-fired plants (Union of Concerned Scientists, June 2009). That electricity is sent out onto the national grid through a series of huge transmission lines. The electricity follows these long transmission lines to large regional distribution hubs where it is then split up and sent out to smaller, regional and local hubs where it finally waits for you to turn on your lights, hair dryers, heaters, and other household appliances. While measures to educate the public about energy conservation have been effective, demand for electricity is still high. This means that, barring the wide adoption of cleaner alternative energies and energy-use solutions, coal is still being burned, perpetuating the demand-burn-pollute-harm cycle over and over. When it comes to air pollutants and public health, it is imperative that people understand this connection and that it affects them every day.

“A lot of people feel that they’ve buffered themselves from city life, that they don’t have to deal with the pollution issue, that because they can’t see the coal power plant they think it doesn’t affect them. And the great thing about this dawn of environmentalism, if you will, is that people are finally beginning to understand that the air pollution does not stop at the Stevenson Expressway. [Here in Chicago] we’re getting air pollution from Houston, our air pollution is going to New York, we are all breathing in the same nauseous, toxic air and people are–especially our young people are informing their parents about this–people are finally starting to say: ‘Moving to the suburbs, while location-wise you might think you’re better off, you’re in the same boat as we are.’” (Kim Wasserman, Coordinator, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Chicago, June 2008)


“When you look at what comes out of power plants it literally does travel hundreds of miles, so there’s literally no portion of the country that’s immune from this. This stuff is raining down everywhere. There’s a constant fog of air pollution that there’s no escape from. So no matter where you live, you’re going to be breathing it, and you have to ask yourself how lucky do you feel?” (Brian Urbaszewski, Director, Environmental Health Programs, Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, October 2010)

By continuing to use coal as a source of energy, we perpetuate a chain of events that destroys the earth and takes lives. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We currently have all the technology, materials, knowledge and labor we need to move toward greener energy solutions. All we lack is greater voter buy-in because most average Americans don’t understand the effects of pollution on their own lives. The Dirty Truth About Coal will reverse this trend by educating viewers so that soon we can all begin to breathe… a little easier.

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