DES MOINES - A public health group fired a lump of coal Tuesday at Iowa's leading energy source in favor of alternative, healthier ways to generate needed power.

Maureen McCue, a University of Iowa professor and coordinator of the Iowa chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said her group is launching an educational campaign to make Iowans aware of the health risks and costs associated with the state's reliance on burning coal to generate nearly 75 percent of its electricity.

While there are no direct studies, McCue said applying Iowa data to national research models suggests a price tag $71 million in "invisible" health-related costs associated with coal and coal ash such as asthma, respiratory, neurological and heart problems. About 92 percent of the state's residents live within 30 miles of a coal plant and nearly one in every three Iowa children attends school in close proximity to a coal plant.

"We're really stuck in an energy source from the 1800s," McCue said during a Statehouse news conference. "We're quite concerned that the general population, including the health-care profession, are unaware of the fact that here in Iowa we burn a disproportionate amount of coal relative to our population, and our population pays for that coal in their health, in their taxes in the form of subsidies to the coal industry and with degradation to the environment at multiple levels."

Rather than import coal, McCue said Iowa should shift the focus to geo-thermal, solar, wind and bio-mass sources of renewable energy that produce energy in a way that is cleaner, healthier, safer and more sustainable. She said coal combustion emissions and waste residue contain numerous pollutants hazardous to health, including mercury, fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and others.

The physicians' group called for a moratorium on new coal plants in Iowa and "shuttering" of the oldest burners, tightening standards for allowable levels of particulate matter and more emphasis on renewable energy, although McCue conceded it would be "a little dicey" convincing Gov.-elect Terry Branstad and the realigned Iowa Legislature to adopt their recommendations given the post-2010 election political realities.

While the industry touts "clean coal" as a solution to the problems she cited, McCue said the technology to capture and sequester toxic waste associated with burning coal does not exist, would carry "astronomical" infrastructure costs and is concept comparable to healthy cigarettes.

She said information about the "Getting to Know Coal" campaign and copies of the group's latest preliminary mapping study of coal and health in Iowa can be found at the website.