You are currently viewing Poland and its coal (part 1): the devastating effects on public health
the Karolin coal-fired power station in Poznan, Poland ©Marcin Jozwiak


In winter, when the wind doesn’t blow in Poland, cities disappear under a thick gray, black, or yellow mist: the “smog”. A contraction of the words “smoke” and “fog,” smog is a toxic mix of ambient fog, gases, and fine particles, and is the reason Poland has the most polluted air in Europe today. For all, the main cause of smog in Poland is clear: the combustion of coal, of which the country remains heavily dependent for energy[1].


A morbid pollution

Coal is the only means of heating and cooking for many Poles. 40% of Polish households still use coal, specifically lignite, for these purposes[2]. However, the combustion of lignite releases a lot of toxic and greenhouse gases, such as nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, and sulfur. Other elements also spread into the atmosphere, such as fine particles of soot or heavy metals[3]. When this toxic cocktail mixes with the fine droplets of fog, smog appears. From an environmental point of view, the impact is obviously deplorable: this pollution damages vegetation and disrupts terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems[4].

But above all, smog is deadly. According to the European Environment Agency, no fewer than 50,000 Polish citizens die prematurely every year from the effects of air pollution[5]. A report by researchers at the Universities of Texas, Kentucky and Indiana found that pollutant emissions from coal combustion “has been linked to respiratory effects and compromised lung function, increased susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections, low birthweight in newborn infants, increased infant mortality, neurological effects, and decreased life expectancy”[6]. The effects are similar to the impact of smoking cigarettes. Some people are particularly vulnerable, such as the elderly, children and pregnant women. During these periods of toxic haze, hospitals can record a 50% increase in the number of patients, and the number of deaths due to respiratory or cardiac diseases rises sharply[7].

Some towns are more affected than others by the appearance of smog, such as those located in natural basins, like Rybnik[8]. The increase in mortality is also greater in certain areas, particularly in industrial regions where polluting emissions from factories are added to household pollution. In these urban districts, such as the city of Katowice, daily mortality is directly linked to air quality[9].


The dangers of the coal industry

Coal is not just a source of danger in cities. According to the International Labour Association, mining is still one of the most dangerous industries in the world[10]. Polish coal mines are no exception, and the risks are many: explosions, fires, landslides and even floods. Accidents are frequent: a report based on data from the central statistics office (Główny Urząd Staytsyczny) lists more than two thousand people injured in coal mine accidents in 2021[11]. And even if we are only talking about injuries here, it is not uncommon for these accidents to be fatal[12].

Coal dust emitted during the mining process is also a serious source of danger for miners. When inhaled, these particles remain attached to the lung tissue and cause the development of pneumoconiosis, an incurable disease with potentially fatal complications. In Poland, around 7,340 cases of pneumoconiosis were reported among miners between 2000 and 2017[13]. On top of that, general working conditions in mines, such as exposure to strong vibrations and noise, also have a negative impact on workers’ health.

Finally, biodiversity is also heavily impacted by coal mining. As well as being a major emitter of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, coal mines release many toxic substances and heavy metals into the surrounding ecosystems. According to official figures, 1.4 million tonnes of sulphates and chlorides were released into waterways by Polish coal mines in 2022, and some observers even believe that these figures are underestimated[14]. The result was the appearance of toxic algae and the death of tonnes of fish.


The use and exploitation of coal in Poland is therefore a major issue for national politics. Although the aim is to end the country’s dependence on this fossil fuel, the transition to other energy sources requires a number of political, socio-economic and even historical factors to be taken into account.

To find out more about this topic, here’s the link to the second part of this article “Poland and its coal: the challenges and progress of the energetic transition“.

















A propos de Hugo FERREIRA