Those near coal-firing plants at risk for serious health problems

Communities and aquatic ecosystems near coal-firing plants are at risk for serious health problems from the toxic metals and radioactivity stored in ponds at the plants even if the facilities cease to burn its coal ash, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Pratt School of Engineering, the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“Our findings emphasize the fact that although you may stop the emission of toxic elements from coal-fired power plants into the air, they remain in the fly ash that gets stored in power plants’ containment ponds, and may still end up in the environment,” said Avner Vengosh, associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at the Nicholas School.

The team of Duke researchers analyzed data collected at the site of the massive coal ash spill that occurred after a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) coal ash impoundment pond burst and dumped more than a billion gallons of toxic material on to a neighboring community. The analysis of ash samples revealed high levels of toxic metals and radioactivity, including 75 parts per million of arsenic, 150 parts per billion of mercury, and eight picocuries (a standard measure of radioactivity) per gram of total radium.

Wet coal ash poses less of a risk; however, when the ash dries into fly ash, the risk of humans inhaling the toxic fumes increases. “Our study highlights the high probability that as the ash dries, fine particulates enriched with these elements will be re-suspended in the air as dust and could have a severe health impact on local residents or workers who inhale them,” said Vengosh.

Since the massive coal ash spill last December, the TVA has been working to clean up the mess it caused. The cleanup effort is expected to cost the TVA nearly $1 billion, though some experts say it will be impossible to restore the land and waterways affected.

Source: Duke University