Health Impacts of Coal Ash


Coal ash is a mix of many chemicals and heavy metals that pose a threat to human health and the environment, such as arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, selenium, antimony, and molybdenum. Coal ash can especially have negative health impacts when the ash is not properly managed. This is true whether the ash is stored in wet “lagoons” or dry landfills, either one can be particularly hazardous if the impoundment is unlined, allowing contaminants to infiltrate the groundwater.

How Coal Ash Threatens Our Health

The EPA has found that living next to a coal ash disposal site can increase your risk of cancer or other diseases, especially if you live near an unlined wet impoundment that contains coal ash commingled with other wastes. According to the EPA’s “Human and Ecological Risk Assessment for Coal Combustion Wastes” report, people in those circumstances have as much as a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer from drinking water contaminated by arsenic, one of the most common and dangerous pollutants in coal ash. Along with an increased risk of cancer from toxic heavy metal exposure, coal ash can affect human development, create lung and heart problems, cause stomach ailments, and contribute to premature mortality. In April, 2012, doctors from Physician for Social Responsibility presented the Obama Administration with a petition signed by 850 health professionals voicing their concern about the toxic dangers posed by unregulated coal ash disposal.

Coal ash is of particular concern for low-income and minority communities. Over half of the coal plants in the country are in low-income communities, and almost half of the EPA “high hazard” ash ponds in the Southeast are located in low-income areas. Minority populations are also at a disproportionate risk. For instance, the coal ash waste that devastated Roane County, TN after TVA’s Kingston coal ash pond failure is now being shipped to Perry County, AL—a largely minority community where arsenic contamination has risen to levels 80 times the safe drinking water standards.

The working class community of Cane Creek, Kentucky knows all too well how difficult it is to protect themselves from coal ash. For years, they have been watching coal ash from a nearby LG&E coal ash landfill encroach on their neighborhood. Toxic coal ash dust blows into neighborhoods, covering cars and houses, and the mountain of ash has grown so large that it completely obscures views from Cane Run Road. Kathy Little and other nearby residents have been fighting the utility for years, as detailed in this article naming Kathy Louisvillian of the Year. Kathy Little has called on every agency she can and asked for regulations to protect the health of her family and community, you can do the same on our Take Action Page.


Health Effects of Coal Ash Pollutants

AluminumLung disease, developmental problems
AntimonyEye irritation, heart damage, lung problems
ArsenicMultiple types of cancer, darkening of skin, hand warts
BariumGastrointestinal problems, muscle weakness, heart problems
BerylliumLung cancer, pneumonia, respiratory problems
BoronReproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness
CadmiumLung disease, kidney disease, cancer
ChromiumCancer, ulcers and other stomach problems
ChlorineRespiratory distress
CobaltLung/heart/liver/kidney problems, dermatitis
LeadDecreases in IQ, nervous system, developmental and behavioral problems
ManganeseNervous system, muscle problems, mental problems
MercuryCognitive deficits, developmental delays, behavioral problems
MolybdenumMineral imbalance, anemia, developmental problems
NickelCancer, lung problems, allergic reactions
SeleniumBirth defects, nervous system/reproductive problems
VanadiumBirth Defects, lung/throat/eye problems
ZincGastrointestinal effects, reproductive problems
Testimony of Stephen A. Smith, DVM, Executive Director, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy
Submitted to U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, January 8, 2009