Increased coal combustion — especially of poor quality, heavily polluting coals — in Poland is setting off a public health emergency as families try to keep warm amidst the global energy crisis set off by the Russian war in Ukraine. Illegal backyard coal mining has made a comeback in Ukraine, and recent moves by regional governments to allow residential burning of brown, or lignite, coal is having severe impacts on public health.

In some places, like Olpiny where the Tkaczuk family lives with their asthmatic five year-old son, as many as 40% of households burn coal in old furnaces known as “smokers” for their noxious fumes. “I feel completely helpless and abandoned by the state,” Julia Tkaczuk, told Reuters of her son. “Every sneeze is a warning sign for me.”

Lignite has extremely high sulfur and mercury content that makes burning it especially dangerous, and it contains less energy than black coal so more must be burned for the same amount of heat. Piotr Kleczkowski, a professor at Krakow’s AGH University specializing in environmental protection, told Reuters the pollution from the suspended pollution ban could cause as many as 1,500 premature deaths just in the Tkaczuk’s province this winter alone. “It gets worse: with more sulfur in the air, mercury finds it easier to get into our lungs,” Kleczkowski said. (Reuters)