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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. A copy of the report is available here.

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.

“This is an expanding menace to health,” stated Barbara Gottlieb, PSR’s deputy director for environment and health and the report’s lead author.  “Coal ash is much more toxic than previously understood, and it is endangering communities and the environment in state after state.” 

“There is absolutely no question anymore: coal ash is toxic to human health,” said Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice. “In the face of mounting evidence of harm to communities across the U.S., the EPA must act without delay to safeguard the public from this growing threat.”

“As health professionals, we call on the EPA to respond to this situation with mandatory nationwide regulation. It’s imperative that we keep these toxics out of our water,” added Peter Wilk MD, PSR’s executive director.

Coal ash is dumped at approximately 2,000 sites distributed across most of the states in the nation. There are at least 629 coal ash waste ponds, 337 dry landfills, over 750 inactive dumps and hundreds of abandoned and active mines where coal ash was dumped as fill.

In June, the EPA proposed two options to regulate coal ash. One option would finally regulate this hazardous substance as a “special waste” under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act with strong safeguards that protect public health, including liners, water quality monitoring and cleanup standards. The other option – supported by power companies and other big polluters – would retain the status quo of ineffective state regulations that often fail to control the coal ash threat to our drinking water and health and that would allow the continued use of dangerous, leaking coal ash ponds like the impoundment that burst in Kingston, TN, in December 2008.

The EPA is accepting public comments on their proposal until Nov. 19, with public hearings still to be held in Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Louisville, KY; and Knoxville, TN.


Barbara Gottlieb, Physicians for Social Responsibility, (202) 587-5225
Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, x213
Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (978) 548-8645

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