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Coal and Human Health

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Detailed Description

Did you know that natural resources like coal can have impacts on human health?

USGS Energy Resources Program Coordinator Brenda Pierce discusses an emerging area of study called ‘medical geology’ and the connections between natural resources and human health. We also hear from USGS scientists Bill Orem and Calin Tatu, who are researching links between coal and a kidney disease called ‘BEN’ in the Balkans.




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Kara Capelli: Welcome to USGS CoreCast. I'm your host, Kara Capelli. Research on how human health is impacted by energy resources such as coal is an emerging area.

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The USGS has been digging into this field called Medical Geology for some time, and today we are joined by three USGS scientists to discuss this research, specifically the links between coal resources and kidney diseases.

I'm joined now by Brenda Pierce, USGS Energy Resources Program Coordinator. Welcome to CoreCast.

Brenda Pierce: Thank you, Kara.

Kara Capelli: Brenda, what can the USGS Energy Resources Program contribute to human health research?

Brenda Pierce: Well, the USGS has had a long standing program in studying energy resources including coal, gas, oil, uranium, geothermal, those types o things. And it's not enough to actually understand, do research and characterize the resources, though that's very important, we also have to understand the environmental and human health impacts of energy occurrence and use.


So, this is a very important part of our program and by partnering with medical doctors and those in the medical field, we can bring together their expertise and our expertise, start looking at some of these links.

Kara Capelli: So, for example, a resource like coal might have some adverse effects.

Brenda Pierce: Well, I think, any energy resource has adverse effects. It's understanding those and minimizing those. So, one of the topics we'll be talking about today is a disease called Balkan endemic nephropathy or BEN for short, and it's a kidney disease where the hypothesis is linking drinking water from coal beds to this kidney disease.

Often, it's the natural impurities in the coal or the oil or the gas that affects, not even necessarily using the coal, but as a naturally occurring coal, naturally occurring compounds within the coal that then affect the human bodies. And so, how do we characterize that, how do we avoid that drinking water, that type of thing.


Kara Capelli: Thank you, Brenda. And as you mentioned, we're going to be talking a little bit about this disease, BEN, and its relationship to coal. Joining us now are two USGS scientists, Bill Orem and Calin Tatu, who have been researching BEN for several years. Bill is a chemist and works with the Geochemistry of Fossil Fuels, and Calin is a USGS researcher as well as a doctor at the Timisoara University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Romania. Welcome to CoreCast.

Bill Orem: Thank you.

Calin Tatu: Thank you, Kara.

Kara Capelli: Before we get into the specifics of some of your more recent studies, what exactly does BEN do to the human body?

Calin Tatu: The kidney function shuts off completely. So, if the waste production that are generated into the body that cannot be eliminated properly, and the person will succumb, unless he gets into the dialysis program or a kidney transplant program. Unfortunately, in the affected countries, and we are talking here about South Eastern European countries in the Balkan Peninsula, these are not always easily available.


Kara Capelli: Thank you, Calin. And Bill, this kidney disease only occurs in various specific areas?

Bill Orem: Yes, and you have to have lived in a BEN village for at least 20 years to get the disease. So, if it isn't an environmental factor that causes the disease, it's from long term chronic exposure to some toxin.

Kara Capelli: So then, how did you make the connection that this specific toxin might be coming from coal deposits?

Bill Orem: There were two USGS scientists working in the Balkans in the early 1990s and they noted a correspondents in, what was then Yugoslavia, between these Pliocene coal deposits and villages where the disease occurred, and they noted this connection. They didn't know at that time what the connection might actually be but they did notice this correspondents and we've kind of picked it up from there.


Kara Capelli: And Bill, what kind of studies are USGS scientists doing to study these correspondents between coal and BEN?

Bill Orem: Well, we're looking at a lot of aspects related to BEN. One of the things we're doing is going to the BEN villages and collecting water samples from the wells, and we're looking for organic compounds in the water that might be coal-derived. And what we're finding is that the villages where BEN occurs have much greater numbers of organic compounds and higher amounts of these compounds in the water compared to villages that do not have BEN.

We've also collected the coal itself and we take that in the laboratory and we do extractions of the coal with water to try to simulate what happens in the environment. And when we do that, we find that the coals from the BEN areas are extraordinarily able to produce large numbers of dissolved organic compounds compared to a lot of other coals.


And the compounds that we get in the laboratory extractions with water are very similar to what we're finding in the water samples that we've actually analyzed from the BEN villages; the drinking water that they use. In addition, we're also trying to look at the links between the compounds themselves and the occurrence of disease. So, what we do is what we call toxicology experiments, that is where we're testing the toxic effects of these compounds on living cells.

Kara Capelli: I'm curious as to why BEN only occurs to specific areas? Why doesn't everyone who lives near coal get this disease?

Calin Tatu: That's a good question. It has to do with the particular type of coal that's found in these areas, and this coal is found only, have been only in these Eastern European Balkan areas. We are talking here about any mature-type of coal that has lots and lots of organic compounds in its structure. It is a very rich mobile phase that can be very easily dissolved into the ground water. So, it has to do with this particular type of Pliocene 06:21


Kara Capelli: Thank you, Calin. And Bill, you've been working recently on studies in the US?

Bill Orem: We think that similar diseases too can occur outside of the Balkans where you have factors that are similar such as the occurrence of low-rank coals, and a population that uses untreated drinking water; that's an important point. Untreated drinking water that is an association with the coal or linked in some way hydrologically to the coal.

And we've been looking in the US and these rare cancers that are associated with BEN occur in the US specifically in states that have those two criteria: they have low-rank coals and populations that use untreated drinking water.


We've been looking in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming which is a state with the number one incidence of the types of renal pelvic cancers associated with BEN. Not specifically BEN but possibly a cancer that might have a similar causation because it's the same type of cancer that we see with BEN, this so called renal pelvic cancers.

We do not yet know that this is directly linked to the coal occurrence but we're continuing to study this and hope to have some answers on this in the future.

Kara Capelli: Well, we're looking forward to hearing more about this fascinating and important research. Do you have any final thoughts?

Bill Orem: Yes, we were gratified to see that when we returned to do some work in Romania this past spring, a group of people in a BEN village in Romania had heard about our work and had decided to actually take the initiative and changed their drinking water supply as a result of that. So, that's a great. A very gratifying thing to see that actually people taking your research results and using that to try to better their health.


Kara Capelli: Well, thank you very much, Bill and Calin, and thank you, Brenda, for being here today.

Brenda Pierce: Thank you.

Bill Orem: Thank you, Kara.

Calin Tatu: Well, thank you for hosting us.

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Kara Capelli: For more information on BEN or other medical geology studies, visit and click on the health and environment link at the top of the page. CoreCast is a product of the US Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. Thanks for listening.

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