Health Effects of Coal Dust

Of all the air pollutants produced by coal mining activities, particulate matter is the most significant health threat. Most health and medical research on particulates has focused on fine particles known as PM2.5 (measuring less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter) and PM10 (less than ten micrometres in diameter) as these are associated with the most significant health impacts.

As a major component of outdoor air pollution, particulates can trigger heart attacks and strokes. Particulate matter has been deemed carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation. Fine particles travel deep into the lungs and pass into the blood stream, posing a risk of stroke and heart attacks.


Above: A visualisation of just how small particulate matter is.

There is no threshold below which particle pollution exposure is not harmful to health (World Health Organisation). So although environmental regulators in Australia tend to consider particle concentrations up to the national standard ‘acceptable’ or even ‘good’, community health is improved by reducing particle pollution right down to zero. Health impacts are associated with both short-term and long-term exposure.

New national standards for particle pollution were adopted by Australia’s nine environment ministers on 15 December 2015. Stricter standards were recommended (NEPC 2014; EJA 2015) and supported by Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory. 


  PM2.5 24 hour average PM2.5 annual average PM10 24 hour average PM10 annual average
Standards proposed in the 2014 Impact Statement 15, 20 or 25μg/m3 6, 8 or 10μg/m3 30, 40 or 50μg/m3 12, 16 or 20μg/m3
Agreed at Minister’s Meeting of 15 December 2015 25μg/m3 8μg/m3 50μg/m3 25μg/m3  

Table: Proposed standards vs. agreed standards at at Minister’s Meeting of 15 December 2015


The new standards are regularly exceeded in the Hunter Valley and may also be in Central Queensland and other coal-effected regions where there is presently no air pollution monitoring or data is not readily available.


Impacts in coal-effected communities

Coal mining accounts for almost half (47%) of Australia’s reported PM10 emissions (NPI). These emissions have more than doubled in the last five years from 210,000 tonnes in 2008-09 to 435,000 tonnes in 2013-14. Most of the 50 open-cut coal mines that dominate these emissions are located in the coalfields of Central Queensland and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.

Despite the Hunter region having higher than average rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease including asthma, there has been minimal research into the health impacts of mining.


$600 million Health costs of pollution from the five coal fired power station in the Hunter Valley
$47 million Health damages for the towns of Singleton and Muswellbrook
$18.3 million Exposure of Muswellbrook residents to fine particles (PM2.5) emitted from coal mines and coal fired power stations
$18 million Health costs associated with air pollution (PM10) from coal sources in Newcastle

Table: Estimated annual health costs associated with particle pollution in the Hunter Valley Source: CAHA 2015 


Exposure pathways

  • Removal of overburden
  • Blast plumes
  • Wind erosion of overburden
  • Unpaved roads in and around mines
  • Uncovered coal stockpiles
  • Draglines and other excavators
  • Loading and unloading trucks, trains and ships including uncovered coal wagons
  • Conveyors


You can download this fact sheet as a .PDF file by clicking here


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