Climate Science

June 1, 2014

Coal emissions impact everyone

It is almost four years ago to the day that people in the North Country experienced something unusual.

When residents went outside, they were greeted by a haze that smelled like smoke. And smoke it was.

There were more than 100 wildfires burning in southern Quebec starting in late May 2010, and the winds were blowing it directly into northern New York and the New England region.

More than 220,000 acres were involved. (See NOAA map of this northeast region showing dark spots — upper left of image — for the fire locations in Quebec and the plumes of smoke of varying intensity covering portions of the Northeast. See photo, courtesy of, of sailboats in a hazy Boston Harbor on May 31, 2010, with the Prudential Building in the background.)

What made this event of interest to scientists was the opportunity to look at long-distance transport and composition of volatilized material from those forest fires.

Some of this information appeared in a publication in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology 2010, 44[22], pp 8435-8440, in October 2010. The authors were from the Center for Air Resource Engineering and Science and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, both at Clarkson University in Potsdam.

The results showed an 18-fold increase in the PM2.5, small particles that penetrate deep into the lungs, and significant increases in mercury (Hg) levels among other measurements. This mercury was in the gaseous form, as well as attached to particulates carried by the winds.

Where did this mercury, a potent neurotoxin, come from?

This issue is a perfect example of an externality. In addition to mercury, coal also contains arsenic, selenium and other toxic components. When burned, these are carried downwind and deposited everywhere.

The cost of electricity from coal does not take into account the potent toxins released into our environment that impact humans and other parts of the ecosystem. This includes fish with restrictions on consumption because they contain too much mercury.

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