Analysis shows exposure to ash from TVA spill could have 'severe health implications'

January 29, 2009
Duke graduate student Laura Ruhl collects samples from a site affected by the TVA coal sludge spill. | Avner Vengosh

( -- A report by Duke University scientists who analyzed water and ash samples from last month’s coal sludge spill in eastern Tennessee concludes that “exposure to radium- and arsenic-containing particulates in the ash could have severe health implications” in the affected areas.

“Our radioactive measurements of solid ash samples from Tennessee suggests the ash has radiation levels above those reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for typical coal ash,” said Avner Vengosh, associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Preventing the formation of airborne particulate matter from the ash that was released to the environment seems essential for reducing possible health impacts.”

More than a billion gallons of sludge coal waste spilled from a holding facility at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal-burning power plant on Dec. 22. The ash-laden waste flooded more than 400 surrounding acres and spilled into a tributary of the Emory River, which converges with the Clinch River and flows into the Tennessee River, a major source of drinking water for many communities in the region. The spill was so large it partly dammed the tributary of the Emory River, turning it into a standing pond.

Vengosh’s team found that the combined content of radium-228 and radium-226 - the two long-lived isotopes of radium - in the solid ash samples they collected from the TVA spill measured about 8 picocuries per gram. That’s higher than the average 5-6 picocuries per gram reported by the EPA in most bottom and fly ash samples. The curie is a standard measure of the intensity of radioactivity.

Radium is a naturally occurring radioactive element that decays from uranium and thorium elements in coal. When the coal is burned, it is concentrated in the ash. The EPA classifies radium as a Group-A carcinogenic material, which means exposure to it could cause cancer.

Water samples collected and analyzed by Vengosh and Duke graduate student Laura Ruhl found high levels of arsenic, measuring 95 parts per billion, in water from the dammed tributary where coal ash has accumulated. Only low concentrations were found in the Emory and Clinch rivers. The EPA has set the arsenic standard for safe public drinking water at 10 parts per billion.

Arsenic is a toxic metal that can occur naturally in the environment or as a by-product of some agricultural and industrial activities. According to the EPA, the effects of long-term chronic exposure to arsenic can include increased risk of certain types of cancer, as well as skin damage and circulatory problems.

“The good news is, we detected only trace amounts of arsenic in waters beyond the dammed tributary,” Vengosh said. “The data suggests that in less than three weeks since the spill, river flow has diluted the arsenic content. The river is clean, but the water from areas like the dammed tributary, where the coal ash has accumulated, still contains high arsenic levels.”

Vengosh is an internationally cited expert on the chemistry of radioactive elements in surface and ground waters. He has conducted extensive research on radon and radium contaminants in the ground waters of western North Carolina and the Middle East.

He and Ruhl collected the water and solid ash samples at sites affected by the TVA spill on Jan. 9. Duke research scientist Gary Dwyer analyzed the water samples for trace metal content using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Following preliminary analysis, the solid ash samples were incubated and underwent more detailed analysis of their radioactive content using gamma spectrometry.

Vengosh’s team collected the samples from the TVA spill after being contacted by United Mountain Defense, a nonprofit environmental group based in Tennessee. The Duke researchers received no funding from the group or any other external party. All funding was provided by the Nicholas School, Vengosh said, “to maintain total impartiality in our analysis.”

“The TVA spill is one of the largest events of its kind in U.S. history. It raises questions concerning the safety of storing coal ash and the potential effects of coal ash on environmental and human health,” Vengosh said. “We hope our analysis will help provide some answers.”

Provided by Duke University

Explore further: Some Chinese coal ash too radioactive for reuse

Related Stories

Some Chinese coal ash too radioactive for reuse

November 9, 2017

Manufacturers are increasingly using encapsulated coal ash from power plants as a low-cost binding agent in concrete, wallboard, bricks, roofing and other building materials. But a new study by U.S. and Chinese scientists ...

High molybdenum in Wisconsin wells not from coal ash

November 1, 2017

When high levels of the trace element molybdenum (mah-LIB-den-um) were discovered in drinking-water wells in southeastern Wisconsin, the region's numerous coal ash disposal sites seemed to be a likely source of the contamination.

Recommended for you

Climate change made Harvey rainfall 15 percent more intense

December 14, 2017

A team of scientists from World Weather Attribution, including researchers from Rice University and other institutions in the United States and Europe, have found that human-caused climate change made the record rainfall ...

Hydraulic fracturing negatively impacts infant health

December 13, 2017

From North Dakota to Ohio to Pennsylvania, hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has transformed small towns into energy powerhouses. While some see the new energy boom as benefiting the local economy and decreasing ...

East Antarctic Ice Sheet has history of instability

December 13, 2017

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet locks away enough water to raise sea level an estimated 53 meters (174 feet), more than any other ice sheet on the planet. It's also thought to be among the most stable, not gaining or losing ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Jan 29, 2009
This begs 2 questions:
1) What is the health effects of "8 picocuries per gram" on a daily basis in drinking water?
2) How much of that survives the water treatment and transportation process to come out of the tap?
not rated yet Jan 29, 2009
For 226 and 228 radium, the MCL is 5 picocuries per liter and for 224 radium it is 15pCi/l. Note that a liter is 1000 grams.

Traditional municipal water treatment, filtration and chlorination has no effect. An ion exchange resin column or RO might remove Ra.

Those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to nonsense. If it was easy then every one would do it.
not rated yet Jan 30, 2009
they don't mention the form of the radium. for example my Merck Index lists bromides and chlorides of radium as water soluble. Maybe in coal ash it is combined with a silicate??

not rated yet Jan 30, 2009
As a hypothetical silicate what might the exposure route be that would make the EPA DW MCL ineffective?
1 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2009
For 226 and 228 radium, the MCL is 5 picocuries per liter and for 224 radium it is 15pCi/l. Note that a liter is 1000 grams.

Yeah, I looked it up and 5 picocuries was listed as being far below the danger level for continuous exposure over a 70 year span. This level is around the average natural level in the soil although certain geologic formations are listed as being orders of magnitude higher.

No chemical toxicity levels are given.

Traditional municipal water treatment, filtration and chlorination has no effect. An ion exchange resin column or RO might remove Ra.

Ion exchange and reverse osmosis are listed as ways to reduce the amount. Filtration can also help for radium bound to suspended particulates.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.