Coal / Coal Ash / Duke Energy

Coal plants might be even more toxic than we thought

An environmental disaster in North Carolina reveals that a rare, potentially dangerous compound is abundant in burned coal

Three examples of Magnéli phases of titania suboxides identified in coal ash from US and Chinese coals.

BLACKSBURG, VA — “Scientists studying the aftermath of a massive coal-ash spill in North Carolina have discovered a byproduct of the fossil fuel that may pose human health risks.

…The newly identified material, made of titanium and oxygen, had been produced experimentally in labs as early as the 1930s, but it is extremely rare in nature. The Virginia Tech team sought out coal-ash samples from states, including Virginia and Illinois, and from as far away as China. Sure enough, they found “titanium sub-oxides” in 22 samples. They suspect that in the U.S., scrubbers mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency capture the material, reducing its prevalence. Dust analyzed from Shanghai sidewalks, streets and standing water contained the material, according to their research, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Coal contains from 0.1 percent to 6 percent titanium dioxide, the same chemical that’s commonly used in sunblock, makeup, and paint. This substance has drawn scientific scrutiny in recent years for potential health hazards on the nano-scale.

Testing the titanium sub-oxides on zebrafish (the aquatic cousin of lab rats) showed it to be toxic when ingested; the toxicity was significant in tissue not exposed to sunlight. Analogous effects in small-to-large animals, including humans, “are likely to be found,” the authors concluded. Research will turn to that question next.

Searching for human health effects exposes a paradox between how science is conducted and what society allows industry to pump into air and water, according to James Kubicki, chair of the department of geological sciences at University of Texas-El Paso, who didn’t participate in the coal-ash study. It’d be unethical to test a substance on human subjects, because it might sicken or kill them. And yet, ‘in the real world, we’re doing that all the time,’ he said.”

— Eric Roston, Bloomberg News

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