Environment, News

This week in pollution: Coal ash is radioactive and will be for more than 1,000 years

hand-and-atom-1000x1277Arsenic? Check. Lead? Yep. Mercury. Sadly, yes. Selenium, boron, Chromium 6: Yes, yes and yes.

Now add radioactivity to the long list of coal ash’s environmental and health concerns.

Radioactivity in coal ash has been found to contain seven to 10 times the levels present in the original hunk of coal. That finding is problematic not only for surface and groundwater, said Nancy Lauer of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, but also for the air — and the people breathing it.

For the past two days, Duke University has been hosting its annual Environmental Health Scholars forum at the 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Durham. It’s been fascinating but rather depressing. (Next year, may we suggest tins of Zoloft in a swag bag?)

The agenda has been packed with primarily bad news about the effects of coal ash; exposure could be associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Hog waste teems with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can contribute to myriad illnesses and infections in humans.

As for the radioactive coal ash, it’s a byproduct of incinerating coal. The carbon is burned off, leaving behind the higher concentrations of radioactive materials in the ash. That material is then disposed of in landfills and ponds. From there, the ash and its glow-in-the-dark atomic friends can leach into surface water, groundwater and soil. And since the ash is light, it also easily takes flight into the air.

Lauer said coal ash landfills must be properly lined to keep the radioactivity from traveling the superhighway into the aquifers. And a landfill cap is essential to keeping it out of the air. Workers and nearby residents can breathe alpha-emitting particles. We’ll spare you the physics lesson, but inhaling those materials, which are laden with uranium, thorium or polonium-210 is “very damaging to your lungs,” Lauer said, “and is associated with lung cancer.”

(Polonium-210 is the same element, albeit in extremely high doses, that led to the radiation sickness that killed former KGB officer and Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. He drank it, unsuspectingly, in tea.)

The amount of radioactivity in the ash depends on the levels in the original coal. The Illinois Basin produces coal with the lowest amount of radioactivity.Coal from the Powder River Basin in the Far West has the highest amounts of radioactivity, followed by that sourced in Appalachia, which is used in North Carolina’s Duke Energy plants.

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