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840 Health Professionals Agree: Coal Ash is Hazardous to Your Health

Petition to President Obama calls for federal protections from coal ash

April 26, 2012

Washington, D.C. – Physicians for Social Responsibility delivered to the Obama Administration today a petition signed by 840 medical doctors, health scientists, nurses, and other health professionals outlining the harm that exposure to toxic coal ash imposes on human health. Accompanying the letter are eight doctors from Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Georgia who will meet with their elected officials in Congress.

“In many states, requirements for coal ash disposal are so weak that toxic contaminants leak, leach, spill or blow into the surrounding soil, surface waters, groundwater and/or air,” the health professionals wrote in their letter. “The hazards to health from exposure to these coal ash contaminants – typically including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium – are grave:

  • Chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause cancers of the skin, bladder, lung and kidney. 
  • Lead, a potent neurotoxicant, can contribute to developmental delays, decreased intelligence, behavioral problems, kidney disease and death.
  • Mercury, another neurotoxicant, is particularly harmful to the developing nervous system and can cause developmental delays.
  • Cadmium, if chronically inhaled, can result in kidney disease and obstructive lung diseases, and recent studies indicate developmental effects on children.
  • Chromium in its hexavalent form, if ingested via contaminated water, can cause anemia and stomach cancer. 
  • Excess intake of selenium, which can be absorbed by grasses, grains and animals, can cause impaired vision, neurological problems, paralysis and death.
  • Children are the most vulnerable as their organs, especially the brain, are still developing and their exposure is greater as they eat more, breathe more, and drink more per unit of body weight than adults.

“Coal ash’s threat to health is serious and is growing worse.”

A copy of the petition is available here

Coal ash is the toxic waste generated by coal-fired power plants. It is America’s second largest industrial waste stream; enough coal ash is generated each year to fill train cars stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole. There are over a thousand coal ash dumpsites across the country. At least 189 sites have already contaminated nearby streams, lakes, rivers, creeks or aquifers with pollutants such as arsenic, hexavalent chromium, selenium, lead and other heavy metals.

“Coal ash is a silent killer,” said Barbara Gottlieb, director of environment and health at Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Communities are drinking contaminated water laced with toxic chemicals that poison humans. Medical and health professionals are sending a message that the nation needs federal coal ash safeguards. These health hazards will only continue to get worse unless federal agencies act to protect our health.”

The EPA has proposed the first-ever federal regulation for coal ash, but that has been stalled for nearly two years. Just last week, the House of Representatives passed a transportation bill that included an amendment that would prohibit the EPA from ever setting federal standards for coal ash. Instead, the bill would rely on a patchwork of ineffective and variable state regulations that include no minimum standards and would result in regulating toxic coal ash less stringently than ordinary household waste. 

“Just three years ago, a small Tennessee town was flooded with more than a billion gallons of coal ash. Last October a 25,000-ton coal ash landslide collapsed on the shore of Lake Michigan,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. “Congress seems to have forgotten the real threat that coal ash poses to nearby communities. Water is contaminated, dams are aging, and lives are in danger. Rather than pass a transportation bill that provides American jobs, the House passed one that threatens American communities. That is unacceptable. Congress must allow the EPA to protect human health.”

The Senate and House are scheduled to conference on the bill over the coming days.

“While 1.5 million children live near toxic coal ash sites that increase their risk of cancer, big polluters and their allies in Congress are poised to treat coal ash as safer than household trash,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “The health of our families and our children should not be on the bargaining table, but a minority of legislators have stapled on a coal company wish list to the unrelated transportation bill. Members of Congress need to reject this reckless provision, and ensure that Americans can protect their families from toxic coal ash pollution.”

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