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Groups Gauge Coal Ash Threat to Human Health

Report details coal ash toxicity; Doctors agree that toxics pose significant health threat

September 16, 2010

Washington, D.C. – An organization of doctors and other health professionals joined with environmentalists to release a report today detailing concerns that the leakage of toxic substances including arsenic from coal ash ponds and landfills is contaminating underground aquifers and drinking water supplies and endangering human health across the country.

Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and Earthjustice authored “Coal Ash: The Toxic Threat to our Health and Environment”, which documents the impacts toxic pollutants in coal ash can have on human health and the environment. The report comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducts public hearings in eight cities across the country on its proposal to regulate coal ash. It also follows a major new study released last month identifying an additional 39 coal ash dumps in 21 states that are contaminating drinking or surface water supplies with arsenic and heavy metals.

Among the findings of the report:

  • The toxic metals arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium contained in coal ash contribute to several forms of cancer, as well as lung disease, kidney disease, mental retardation, breathing problems and even death.
  • The report documents the analysis of 73 samples of coal ash waste that showed that pollutants including arsenic and selenium can leach into drinking water at levels exceeding those which the federal government defines as hazardous, sometimes by orders of magnitude.
  • Coal ash spills, leaks and leaches into surface and ground water, are absorbed by fish and other animals, and can even be delivered by the air people breathe.
  • Low-income communities often carry a disproportionate burden of living near coal ash facilities.


The report also summarizes the effects of the nine most common coal ash toxic pollutants: arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, molybdenum, selenium and thallium. Arsenic, for example, when ingested chronically in drinking water can cause several types of cancer in adults and lower IQ scores in children. Exposure to lead can result in brain swelling, kidney disease, cardiovascular problems, nervous system damage and even death. Frequent inhalation of chromium can cause asthma, wheezing and lung cancer, while inhaling boron can lead to short term eye, nose and throat irritation. All these pollutants, and many others, continue to leach from dozens of coal ash waste ponds and landfills across the country.

The EPA has put forth two options for coal ash disposal, only one of which would require mandatory federal regulation.  PSR has strongly endorsed that option, known as “Subtitle C,” as the only alternative currently on the table that would adequately protect human health. 

Coal ash is currently regulated by the states, and their laws are frequently too weak to prevent unsafe dumping practices such as storing coal ash in gravel pits and quarries, unlined landfills, abandoned mines, and in enormous “ponds.”  When a coal ash pond in Tennessee burst in December 2008, it inundated a river valley with a billion gallons of toxic sludge. 

PSR’s call for:

  • mandatory federal regulation of coal ash;
  • phase-out of wet storage, which poses too great a risk of leaching;  and
  • limiting the recycling of coal ash to uses where coal ash is not exposed to water, and where the ash is chemically bound to stable substances.  Unencapsulated uses and mine filling must end.

PSR urges all of its members to contact the EPA voicing their support for strong, federally enforceable safeguards that guarantee coal ash will not pollute our drinking water, rivers, streams, wildlife and communities.  The EPA is now accepting comments via email.  Consult PSR’s fact sheets on what coal ash is and why it is dangerous, health impacts of six of the worst toxicants in coal ash, and how to submit comments to the EPA.

In response to widespread expressions of concern over coal ash, the EPA also scheduled public hearings in Denver, Dallas, Charlotte, NC, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Louisville.  More information on those hearings, which will take place during September, is provided by the EPA.  PSR members in or near those cities are urged to sign up to testify in person at their local hearing.

PSR will release on Sept. 8 a detailed report on coal ash’s impacts on health.  Check back with our website then.

Public comments may be submitted to the EPA via email until Nov. 19.

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