Coal Mining Deregulation and Its Potential Impact on National Reproductive Health

The Problem

Senate Republicans, under the auspices of our current administration, voted to dismantle the Stream Protection Rule (SPR) in 2017. SPR was a significant achievement, and pivotal element of the Obama-era’s body of environmental safeguard legislation. SPR required coal mining companies to monitor the environmental effects caused by mining, and to restore mined areas back to their original, pristine state. It was designed largely to protect America’s waterways, fish, wildlife, and “related environmental values,” from toxic, coal mining runoff debris, produced by surface mining. The Stream Protection Rule protected 6,000 miles of stream and 52,000 forest acres. It also protected the reproductive health and overall health of people.

An early salvo of President Trump’s desire to reverse significant environmental safeguards, geared towards protecting the health and safety of the American public, this legislative move has significant implications for parents, and future-parents. In particular, those who are planning pregnancy or who have young children should be gravely concerned, especially in states where coal mining is prevalent, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky.

The Impact

Coal ash produces a stew of toxic chemicals, including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium, aluminum, barium, boron, and chlorine. Air-borne, particulate matter from burning coal has a well-established, deleterious effect on respiratory health and life expectancy. It also has a negative impact on birth weight and on infant mortality rates. There are hundreds of studies on coal and its negative impact on human health. They include:

  • A report, prepared at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found sufficient evidence to indict coal-fired power plants as a significant cause of low-birth weight, infant mortality, poor growth of the fetus before birth, and abnormal neurological development in children.
  • A study, reported in “Environmental Health Perspectives,” found that prenatal exposure to toxins from coal, adversely affected motor, and language development acquisition in small children.
  • A study, reported in “Genetics and Molecular Biology,” discovered that coal-fired power plants produce and emit greater amounts of radioactive material than nuclear power plants of comparable size. The radioactive material from coal creates polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which generate carcinogenic and mutagenic effects. These cause chromosomal aberrations in the DNA of adults, negatively affecting the reproductive organs, as well as causing cell death.
  • We should be able to take a lesson from China, where coal pollution has been indicted in increased rates of infertility, child mortality, and birth defects. A report on reproductive health and the environment in China found that too-high levels of PAH in water, decreased semen quality parameters and sperm count, reducing fertility in people with male reproductive organs. The negative impact on reproductive health from toxic runoff in industrial waste water has been backed up by additional studies, both in the U.S., and abroad.
  • A report, compiled in 2010 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found that broad-based, unacceptable risk to human health is posed by coal combustion waste in water, particularly in those who live near coal ash containment facilities.

The Bottom Line on Reproductive Health, Birth Rates, and Jobs

  • People are well aware of coal’s negative impact on the air they breathe. People are less aware that airborne, particulate matter from coal tends to settle on the ground and in water, polluting lakes, streams, oceans, and groundwater.
  • Water pollution from coal mining is caused by multiple mining procedures, including burning, processing, and waste storage of coal ash, and coal sludge (slurry). Acid rain, stream, and ground water contamination typically result.
  • Coal waste products include heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and other toxins, known to be detrimental to reproductive health in adults. It is especially dangerous for fetuses and infants.
  • The potential, negative effects of too-high levels of mercury include neurological deficits in newborns and increased miscarriage rates.
  • Lead is linked to multiple issues in children, including neurological deficits, and asthma. It is also linked to increased miscarriage rates.
  • Air and water pollution also impact negatively upon sperm morphology, count, and concentration.
  • In addition, coal does not represent a treasure trove of jobs, or financial security for individuals, towns, or our country. Coal mining is a small, antiquated industry, with a too-large, negative environmental impact. It needs to be replaced, and quickly, for the sake of America’s health, and fiscal health. According to data compiled by the Washington Post, the coal industry employs fewer individuals than Arby’s, and will not grow, or thrive, despite governmental assertions to the contrary. These numbers have been backed up consistently by other, reputable sources, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Solution

There are things you can do:

Whether you’re a hopeful parent, grandparent, or concerned citizen, find out what coal’s impact is in your state, and local area. Currently, there are over 1,100 coal ash sites nationwide. Write to your local representatives, and ask them what is being done to protect you, your family, and your future family from coal’s toxic impact. Our current legislators are the ones who reversed our old protections, and what we had before, wasn’t nearly enough. Only our legislators can reverse the damage the current administration has done. And, they won’t do it, unless you demand that they act.

Find out about your water – where it comes from, and what toxins it contains:

  • Ask your legislators to provide a copy of the routine water analysis which many municipalities perform annually.
  • Find out who your local water supplier is, and ask them for their consumer-confidence report.
  • If your water is sourced from a local well, find out who, if anyone, tests that water. You may be solely responsible for well water, or for any water which does not come from a public water system.
  • Get your water tested. County health departments may be able to help look for bacteria, and nitrates in water, but may not be able to provide concrete information about toxins generated from coal ash. If not, you can have your water tested in a state-certified laboratory. These often provide their own containers, and instructions for sample collection. Find one near you by calling the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800.426.4791.

Take note of the health concerns of your neighbors, and those in your immediate area. Are there higher-than average rates of cancers, miscarriage, birth defects, or other health concerns? If you live in a high-impact area, and are hoping to become pregnant, consider moving. This may sound drastic, but might be preferable to potentially experiencing infertility, miscarriage, or fetal damage.

Test your home for toxins, such as mercury. Remember that your toxic load is contributed to at home, at your place of business, and at school. Ask that the environments you inhabit frequently get tested, and that those tests become part of the public record.

And, stay proactive. You will be fighting not just for your family, but for future families. America’s next generations, and current fate, are in our hands.


This fact sheet was written by Corey Whelan and made possible, in part, through the generous contributions of:

Raquel Dina and Lori Broitman, Richard Hayes, Carlos Johnson, Vince Melamed, Brent Monseur, M.D., William Petok, Ph.D., Rose Pondel, Esq., Frances “Denise” Saenz, Lori Schroeder Esq., Lisa Stark Hughes, Kathryn Valdez, and Staci Whillock