It is day 67 of my 365 Days of Living Deliberately blog, and I am putting together a fact sheet on coal ash, its components, and the dangers to public health, the environment, and natural resources. If the public really apprehends the terrible toxicity of coal ash, it will demand that Duke Energy, the state, and the EPA begin the dredging clean up without delay.
According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, whom I trust for an unfettered, precautionary-principled perspective on the dangers of coal ash far more than I trust Duke Energy, the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the Governor, and the EPA:
“Typically, coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, as well as aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc. All can be toxic. Especially where there is prolonged exposure, these toxic metals can cause several types of cancer, heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, impaired bone growth in children, nervous system impacts, cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. In short, coal ash toxics have the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality. Adding to the toxicity of coal ash is that some power plants mix coal with other fuels and wastes, such as used tires and even hazardous wastes.”
How dangerous is coal ash to humans?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that living next to a coal ash disposal site can increase your risk of cancer or other diseases. If you live near an unlined wet ash pond (surface impoundment) and you get your drinking water from a well, you may have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking arsenic-contaminated water. If eaten, drunk or inhaled, these toxicants can cause cancer and nervous system impacts such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. They can also cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.
Is coal ash a big problem? The EPA estimates that 140 million tons of coal ash are generated
There are nearly a thousand sites at which coal ash is disposed across the nation: 584 surface ponds and 337 dry landfills. Coal ash disposal facilities exist in all the U.S. states except Rhode Island, Vermont and Idaho.
Coal ash is the second-largest industrial waste stream in the U.S., after mining wastes.
Among the effects of the most dangerous toxicants in coal ash are:
Arsenic: It has long been known that arsenic, if ingested in very high levels, is deadly. However, lower levels of exposure are also harmful and can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; anemia and decreased production of the white, infection-fighting blood cells;abnormal heart rhythms; blood vessel damage; numbness in the hands and feet; partial paralysis; and decreased vision, even blindness. Repeated low levels of exposure over an extended period of time can produce effects similar to a one-time high level of exposure, and chronic exposure to low levels can cause skin cancer. Arsenic has also been linked to cancers of the lung, bladder, kidney, liver and prostate.
Contaminated drinking water is a primary route of arsenic exposure. Exposure from birth may increase urinary cancer risk much later in life, suggesting that people whose drinking water is contaminated by arsenic from coal ash should be monitored long-term for this cancer,even if they stop drinking the contaminated water.
Lead: As a very potent neurotoxicant, lead is highly damaging to the nervous system. Thisfact has been recognized for thousands of years, and for the last century, it has beenrecognized that children are particularly sensitive. High levels of lead exposure result inswelling of the brain, kidney disease, damage to hemoglobin, and death. But even low levels harm the developing nervous system. There is no safe level of lead exposure, particularly for children.
Mercury: Another well-known neurotoxicant, mercury has the dangerous capacity to bioaccumulate, or build up in animal tissue. When mercury leaches from coal ash into soil or water, it is converted by bacteria into an organic form which can be absorbed by small organisms and the larger organisms that in turn eat them. As it moves up the food chain, the concentration of methyl mercury increases. When it has accumulated to high concentrations in fish, this becomes a major pathway for human exposure.