“Coal ash is a silent killer,” says Barbara Gottlieb, director of environment and health at Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The safety of everything we eat, drink and breathe depends on our willingness to protect it.

Children are the most vulnerable as their organs, especially the brain, are still developing and their exposure is greater as they eat more, breathe more, and drink more per unit of body weight than adults.

“Communities are drinking contaminated water laced with toxic chemicals that poison humans. Medical and health professionals are sending a message that the nation needs federal coal ash safeguards. These health hazards will only continue to get worse unless federal agencies act to protect our health.”

The toxic substances found in coal ash can inflict devastating damage to the human body and the environment.

“In many states, requirements for coal ash disposal are so weak that toxic contaminants leak, leach, spill or blow into the surrounding soil, surface waters, groundwater and/or air,” the health professionals wrote in their letter. “The hazards to health from exposure to these coal ash contaminants – typically including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium – are grave:

  • Chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause cancers of the skin, bladder, lung and kidney.
  • Lead, a potent neurotoxicant, can contribute to developmental delays, decreased intelligence, behavioral problems, kidney disease and death.
  • Mercury, another neurotoxicant, is particularly harmful to the developing nervous system and can cause developmental delays.
  • Cadmium, if chronically inhaled, can result in kidney disease and obstructive lung diseases, and recent studies indicate developmental effects on children.
  • Chromium in its hexavalent form, if ingested via contaminated water, can cause anemia and stomach cancer.
  • Excess intake of selenium, which can be absorbed by grasses, grains and animals, can cause impaired vision, neurological problems, paralysis and death.

Massive amounts of coal ash are generated every day by electrical generating plants, in fact, coal ash is the second-largest industrial waste stream in the U.S., exceeded only by mining wastes.

Coal ash dust can enter the body through the nose, causing damage in the brain directly. However, regardless of particle entry the toxicity from coal ash can cause harm to major body parts such as the brain, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, stomach and intestines.

People working or living near coal ash surface impoundments or landfills are at increased risk for many serious health problems.

Children are most suseptible

“While 1.5 million children live near toxic coal ash sites that increase their risk of cancer, big polluters and their allies in Congress are poised to treat coal ash as safer than household trash,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“The health of our families and our children should not be on the bargaining table, but a minority of legislators have stapled on a coal company wish list to the unrelated transportation bill. Members of Congress need to reject this reckless provision, and ensure that Americans can protect their families from toxic coal ash pollution.”

Physicians for Social Responsibility has released a groundbreaking medical report, “Coal’s Assault on Human Health,” which takes a new look at the devastating impacts of coal on the human body.This report looks at the cumulative harm inflicted by those pollutants on three major body organ systems: the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, and the nervous system.

Read the full report

On April 26, 2012, Physicians for Social Responsibility delivered to the Obama Administration a petition signed by 840 medical doctors, health scientists, nurses, and other health professionals outlining the harm that exposure to toxic coal ash imposes on human health. Accompanying the letter were eight doctors from Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Georgia, who met with their elected officials in Congress. Read the petition here.