It is not uncommon for industries to sell byproducts for profit. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority sells some of the coal ash it produces, a byproduct from coal-burning, to companies for use as a filler in concrete in roads, bridges and concrete blocks; material for wallboard; granules for roofing shingles; grit for sandblasters; filler for recreation areas such as ball fields and industrial parks; and fertilizer for crops. It is considered safe for those uses even though coal ash has been found to contain dangerous toxins such as arsenic, lead, chromium, manganese and barium – materials that have been linked to serious health concerns like cancer, liver damage and neurological complications.
But sometimes materials that we think are safe for use are in fact harmful to humans. Consider this sad story now being played out in Lawrence County, Alabama.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced it will test the blood of as many as 200 residents in Lawrence County for potentially toxic chemicals – toxins that were scattered on fields by Decatur Utilities, a local wastewater plant.
For 12 years, Decatur Utilities distributed sludge from its treatment plant to farmers for free for use as fertilizer on their crops. More than 90 percent of the county – or about 5,000 acres of land – have been covered with the stuff. In 1979, 3M conducted tests and alerted the EPA of the possibility that the fertilizer was contaminated with PFCs, or perflourinated chemicals. It wasn’t until last year that the EPA learned that the potentially contaminated sludge was being dumped on to farmland. Once the connection was made, Decatur Utilities stopped giving away the sludge-fertilizer.
While studies have shown that there is danger of PFCs harming laboratory animals, the effect of PFCs on humans is unclear. The EPA has conducted tests of public water supplies and the Department of Agriculture has studied samples taken from cattle slaughtered near contaminated land. Both have determined that they were safe for human consumption. However, tests on cattle’s blood have levels of PFOS, a particularly toxic PFC, at levels as high as 500 times the EPA health advisory applicable to drinking water, according to the Decatur Daily.
Residents of Lawrence County who live near heavily contaminated fields or who drink from contaminated private wells will receive letters from the EPA soon offering the free blood tests.
Kind of makes you wonder what we will learn about coal ash byproducts, especially those used to fertilize farmland.