Coal Ash: Not good for anyone's backyard
March 2, 2012
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
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.
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,
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.