Skip to Navigation
Skip to Content
Share this page


Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


More Topics »

Coal Ash: Not good for anyone's backyard

Posted on March 2, 2012

By Steven G. Gilbert, PhD, DABT

This essay is in response to: How toxic is coal ash, the waste material left after coal is burned? How does it come to poison the waters and dust the land in communities across the nation? And what can be done to prevent further toxic contamination?

Coal combustion waste, with its many contaminants, is the second-largest industrial waste stream in the United States. When coal is burned it generates several different types of coal ash with different characteristics and levels of contaminants. Safely disposing of this waste product in a way that protects human health and the environment is an ongoing challenge. Typically, coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and selenium, as well as aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc. Exposure to these pollutants follows multiple routes as the ash is distributed into the environment. Dry ash storage can generate air pollution, resulting in inhalation of small contaminated particles and the contamination of our homes, schools, work places and gardens.  Wet ash storage increases the likelihood of pollutants migrating into the water supply. Serious multimedia contamination occurs for example with mercury, a common contaminant of coal that enters the atmosphere both from coal ash and as an air pollutant when coal is burned and no controls are utilized.

All kids need more protection than a hat to grow up healthy and smart. Photo: Steve Gilbert

Children and adults are subject to a range of potential health effects related to heavy metal exposure from coal ash. Each contaminant has its own potential health effects. Mercury, for example, is a well-known neurotoxicant that is particularly harmful to the developing nervous system. Exposure to mercury for a fetus, infant or small child can cause developmental delays, reduced IQ, behavioral problems, and other nervous system effects. Similarly, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. Even very low levels of lead exposure result in decreased intelligence, lower reading scores, ADHD, and assorted behavioral problems. Cadmium, if chronically inhaled, can result in kidney disease and obstructive lung diseases, and recent studies indicate developmental effects on children. Arsenic, known to contaminate drinking water, can cause cancers of the skin, bladder, lung, and kidney as well as decreased production of blood cells, cardiovascular effects, and damage to the peripheral nervous system. 

Several factors confound the discussion of health effects due to coal ash exposure. Given the large number of toxic substances that routinely occur in coal ash, multiple exposures and overlapping effects are likely to exist. This can make it impossible to discover which contaminant caused what problem. Furthermore, very little is known about the possible interactions between coal ash contaminants; synergistic effects are not identified and may go undiagnosed. The standard is to do a risk assessment one chemical at a time, but no one is exposed to one chemical at a time. Our procedures for assessing the health impacts of multiple chemical exposures are grossly inadequate.

It should also be noted that children are also exposed to coal ash, and they are at greater risk than adults due to several factors, including hand-to-mouth behavior and the fact that they eat more, drink more, and breathe more than adults do, relative to body weight. This means that they are more vulnerable to health effects ranging from asthma to cancer to neurological disorders. Yet established exposure standards such as the reference dose (RfD) and Minimal Risk Levels (MRLs) for toxic substances like arsenic and mercury are calculated based on the effects that exposure would have on a grown male. This makes them inadequate as safeguards for children.  By the same token, all disposal, management, and clean-up standards must be set at levels that will protect kids.

We have an ethical responsibility to protect the most vulnerable amongst us, assuring that arsenic, mercury, and other coal ash contaminants do not enter the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the dirt we play in. To ensure a healthy and sustainable environment and address the inadequacies in current controls, a precautionary approach is recommended. The FDA takes a highly precautionary approach to introducing new drugs into the market by requiring companies to demonstrate the efficacy and safety of their products. Producers of coal ash waste should likewise assume the burden of demonstrating safety. The public should not have to assume the burden of proving harm.

Aldo Leopold said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949). Allowing coal ash to contaminate our environment and our children, and ignoring the larger costs to health from energy production, is wrong. It is our responsibility to ensure that our children live and grow up in an environment in which they can reach and maintain their full potential, free from exposure to the contaminants in coal ash. We must stop externalizing the health and environmental costs of our energy production onto our children and future generations. We have the knowledge; we must take action.

PSR invites concerned readers to sign our petition urging President Obama to direct the EPA to issue strong coal ash protections.


Dave Guyris said ..

My home is built partially near where coal ash was dumped 40 to 50 years or more ago . All the ash is covered with 18" of regular soil and grass above. I was always curious if there is a health risks to my family and me .

April 22, 2013

Comments closed.