Coal was the main fuel of the industrial revolution and early modern age, when large quantities were burnt in order to produce steam which not only drove the pistons of the machines themselves but also to power the turbines which created electricity to power the light bulbs and machinery of a new electric age.
Advantages of Coal as a Fuel
Coal is abundant in many countries around the earth and can be found quite near to surface level, which means that it does not require that much money to be spent (in comparison to other forms fuels) on extraction or processing. It also burns easily which makes it highly effective as a fuel, and whilst there will be some ash left over at the end of the process, it will not require costly and complicated disposal as will be required from nuclear energy generation for example.
The low costs of extraction combined with the large amounts present meant that coal was an effective fuel which was affordable for both households to use a fuel for their fires upon which to cook and heat their homes, as well as businesses who could afford to purchase it in large quantities and expand their production. It was therefore no surprise that coal was the fuel of choice back in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Disadvantages of Coal as a Fuel
Unfortunately coal gives off a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide and particulates when it is burnt, which is released into the air through chimneys. The carbon dioxide gets trapped in the earth's atmosphere and prevents heat escaping out into space, warming the planet and causing situations such as drought/crop failure and extreme weather conditions including floods and tornadoes.
The particulates contained in the smoke can linger in the air which is breathed in by people and can cause health problems. Many large industrialised cities in the UK such as London and Edinburgh were notorious for being unhealthy, smog-ridden areas from all the chimney smoke of the houses and factories burning coal for heat and power virtually all day every day.
Other Health Risks from Coal and the Coal Industry
It was not just those breathing in the smoke from burning coal that had their health and safety put at risk. Those mining and extracting the coal from the ground were exposed to dark, dirty and dangerous conditions down the mines. The cramped underground spaces and lack of fresh air meant that miners were constantly breathing in coal dust which was bad for their respiratory systems. There was always a frequent danger of explosions and fire occurring in the mine. For those who spent long hours down the mine for many years the lack of sunlight and subsequent vitamin D production resulted in conditions such as rickets and weakened immune systems which made them more susceptible to other illnesses.
Children Particularly Had Their Health and Safety Put at Risk
Large numbers of children had their health put at risk from coal. Not only were boys allowed to work in the mines before they even reached adulthood, and so facing all of the risks that fully grown men faced, but even younger children were employed as chimney sweeps because they were small enough to fit in the small space of a chimney flue and so could clean it of soot much more thoroughly than an adult poking a brush up there could. This led to them breathing in large quantities of soot each day, not to mention the danger of falling from height as they climbed up the inside of the chimney. Even those children who were spared the rigours of working down the coal mine or being forced up chimneys to clean them were still exposed every day to the smoky, polluted air of the big city as they lived and worked in it, which led to many childhood illnesses and mortalities as a consequence.