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Question:
My son goes to school near a central heating plant, the smokestack of which spews out a great deal of coal dust into the air. Even the snow is in the area is peppered with black specks of coal. What are the long-term effects of breathing such air?
MS
Answer:
Thank you for your inquiry Breathing coal dust is very well known - over a lifetime of breathing in large amounts in relatively enclosed spaces - to cause coal miners to develop very severe respiratory diseases. However, the situation of breathing unburnt products of coal combustion from smokestacks in the "open air" is fortunately far less serious, though still of concern especially in children. Both coal dust and the products of burning coal can irritate the sensitive tissues of the lung and apart from inducing acute illness such as asthma can assist in the development of more chronic diseases such as bronchitis. The exact impact of poor air quality on health is not thoroughly understood, but long term exposure to particulate and non-particulate pollution does definitely increase susceptibility to all lung infections and lung cancer as well as allergic respiratory illnesses. The relative increase in risk can only be guessed at unless "someone" (usually a public health authority) measures the number of particles of any potentially hazardous substance as a percentage of air. As an example, in the US the limit of an "average" of 50 micrograms of particles per cubic foot of air (in a one year period) is considered poor air quality. There is evidence that the daily peak levels that contribute to a year's average have a significant impact on an individual's health: so, monitoring daily pollution forecasts may be useful, so that outside exposure can be limited on bad days - but this is probably not possible / available in the region where you are. Regrettably, you cannot solve the problem - only "we all" can by practising a less-polluting lifestyle and requiring our governments worldwide to do the same. Until that time, there is little that can be done on a case-by-case basis other than to stay indoors when it's a particularly bad day or to move to a healthier neighbourhood.... Best regards
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