Earlier this week we received an inquiry from Frank in NC who asked, " What all's in coal ash and is there a test for it for my water?"
Thank you, Frank, for the questions and we suspect that many others have similar questions in mind given the amount of press that the topic of coal ash and coal ash dumps have received lately.
What is coal ash?
Simply put, coal ash refers to the byproducts formed when coal fired power plants burn coal. You may also see coal ash referred to as 'coal combustion residuals', or CCR's. More common CCR's include fly ash, bottom ash and boiler slag. Less common, but still important, CCR's include fluidized bed combustion ash, cenospheres, and scrubber residues.
What's in coal ash?
The exact components of coal ash vary between sites and power plants, but as a general rule coal ash will typically contain arsenic, mercury, lead, and over a dozen other heavy metals that health officials and environmentalists consider toxic.
Why is coal ash a problem?
First of all, there's a LOT of the stuff sitting around in landfills and dump sites all over the world and as quantities continue to increase, properly getting rid of coal ash becomes more and more difficult.
The bad-for-our-health components of coal ash blow out of storage areas, spill out of transports moving them from power plants to storage facilities, and leach into the air and nearby bodies of water. No matter how coal ash escapes into the environment, it poses a definite risk to human health by causing various forms of cancer, neurological damage, heart damage, lung disease, kidney disease, reproduction problems, gastrointestinal disorders, birth defects and developmental issues in infants and small children.
That list of potential health hazards, however, does not cover all the bases and health officials continually discover new ways in which coal ash negatively affects human health and wellness.
To give you an idea of how bad the coal ash problem has grown over the years, experts have estimated that waste products from coal-fired power plants in the United States account for the second largest amount of industrial waste generated each year -- and problems with treating and disposing of that enormous waste seem to increase with each passing year.
Testing for coal ash in drinking water?
In terms of a simple at-home water test kit specifically for coal ash, we do not know of such a kit BUT a homeowner CAN test for specific components typically found in coal ash such as arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals.
For a more in-depth look at a much larger number of potential drinking water contaminants that could infiltrate a water source located near a coal ash dump or storage area we suggest using the services of a local drinking water testing lab or the mail-in water testing services of a company like National Testing Laboratories.
Lead in Water Test
Arsenic in Water Test Kit
Mercury in Water Test