Study aims to identify link between coal ash and neurobehavioral disorders in children

Paul Basilio, MDLinx | April 18, 2017

A new study is enrolling children to evaluate whether those who live closer to coal ash storage sites and power plants have greater neurobehavioral disorders than those who live further away.

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Most coal ash is stored in open landfills or ponds. It is not classified as a hazardous waste.

The study is being performed by the University of Louisville, and is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences.

Coal ash, a by-product of coal-powered power plants, contains fly ash—small, spherical particles that often contain toxic metals such as cadmium, arsenic, copper, chromium, manganese, lead, mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and some radioactive elements.

Coal ash is not classified as a hazardous waste, and it is stored in open landfills or ponds. Federal regulations that govern its use, storage, or disposal are limited. Approximately 1.54 million children are exposed to coal ash in the US, and Kentucky ranks in the top 5 states for the amount of ash generated and the amount of ash stored, according to a 2011 report by Earth Justice.

Kristina Zierold, PhD, a researcher at the U of L School of Public Health and Information Sciences and an associate professor in the department of Epidemiology and Population Health, is one of the few scientists investigating the health impacts of coal ash in the US.

“Children are exposed to fly ash through inhalation and ingestion from fugitive dust emissions that come from power plant emissions, landfills, and sludge ponds, which puts these children at risk of developing emotional and behavioral issues such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and neurobehavioral performance problems like the ability to concentrate,” Dr. Zierold said.  

Dr. Zierold is currently recruiting 300 children between the ages of 6 and 14 years who live in neighborhoods located in a radius of between 150 feet and 10 miles of coal ash landfills and ponds in Louisville, KY.

Her team will perform in-home air sampling, and parents will fill out questionnaires to help characterize the children’s health and exposure history. Toenail and fingernail clippings will be collected to test for levels of metals, and the children will be asked to take computer-based tests to assess neurobehavioral performance.

Dr. Zierold says she plans to provide community members with the findings. After the study is finished, she will evaluate the relationships between coal ash and emotional and behavioral disorders, as well as neurobehavioral performance.

For more information on the study, click here.

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