MAC: Mines and Communities

Hidden Dangers of Coal

Published by MAC on 2005-11-15

Hidden Dangers of Coal

By the International Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia, based in the UK (Down to Earth)

15 Nov 2005

States from around the world last week congregated to discuss the "challenges" of increased global carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emmissions. Here we draw readers' attentions to two little known aspects of the use of coal: the lethal promotion of coal briquettes among poor families in Asia, and the exploitation of cheap labour in transporting the black stuff into Europe.

The dangers of coal briquettes

On October 1st, 2005, the president sharply increased the official price of cooking kerosene by 185% from Rp700 per litre to Rp2000 per litre, with the street price settling in subsequent weeks at around Rp2300/l. Further increases are planned until kerosene reaches international market prices in January 2008. The sudden increase in household cooking costs caused a massive public outcry so, less than a week later, coordinating minister for the economy Aburizal Bakrie outlined a government decision to spend Rp150 billion of the 2006 national budget to buy 10 million stoves for poor Indonesian households designed to burn coal briquettes priced at Rp1000 per kilogram.

Ironically, the Indonesian Ministry for Women's Empowerment has been given the task of promoting the household use of coal briquettes, a plan which brings significant health risks for women who do most household work in Indonesia. The World Health Organization estimates that use of solid fuels indoors results in 1.6 million premature deaths each year, largely among women who do most cooking, and the children in their care, who are at increased risk of death by respiratory infection. To address this public health problem, the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air was launched at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. The initiative involves the UN and several developing nation governments such as China and India. Unfortunately, despite hosting the WSSD preparatory conference, Indonesia is not involved in the Partnership.

Studies conducted in China have detailed the nature and causes of health risks to women and children of cooking with coal: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons formed during coal combustion are a cause of oesophageal and lung cancers, and other hydrocarbon combustion products increase rates of acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (such as bronchitis and emphysema). Adding to this risk, coal contains varying levels of sulfur, mercury, arsenic, selenium and fluoride contaminants. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Institute of Geochemistry, Guizhou have estimated that at least 3,000 people in Guizhou Province in southwest China are suffering from chronic arsenic poisoning ,apparently from consuming food prepared over fires fuelled with coal.

The coal to be used in the government-sponsored coal briquette program comes from PT Batu Bara Bukit Asam and PT Kaltim Prima Coal. Since a controversial government-forced sale in 2003, Kaltim Prima Coal is owned by PT Bumi Resources, of which the Bakrie family (led by Coordinating Minister for the Economy Aburizal Bakrie) hold 43% shares. The Bakrie family therefore reportedly controls 40% of the national coal industry, a conflict of interest which does not seem to prevent Minister Bakrie from promoting a switch from liquid fuels to coal, nor from publicly speaking out against his cabinet colleague, Minister of Finance Jusuf Anwar's decision to levy a 5% tax on coal exports.

Neither Bukit Asam nor Kaltim Prima make information available on the (naturally varying) toxic contaminants in their coal, other than to say that their coal is low in sulfur. Officials researching and promoting stoves at the BPPT (Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology) acknowledge there are health issues inherent in using coal indoors, and recommend that the briquette-fuelled stoves be kept outside for 15 minutes after lighting, and, when brought inside, be used only in a well-ventilated kitchen. In response to health concerns, BPPT has also recently begun work on a certification scheme for coal briquettes, although this will only cover sulfur and carbon monoxide emissions. BPPT staff acknowledge this leaves out key pollutants of concern including mercury, arsenic, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.


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