UofL study examining effects of coal ash exposure on children

Public health researcher hopes to recruit 300 children for NIH-funded study

Understanding whether children who live closer to coal ash storage sites and power plants have greater neurobehavioral disorders than children who live further away is the focus of a University of Louisville study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

UofL School of Public Health and Information Sciences researcher Kristina Zierold, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, is one of just a few scholars in the United States investigating the health impacts from exposure to coal ash.

Coal ash is generated when power plants burn coal for energy. It includes many elements, but fly ash, which is comprised of small, spherical particles, is the greatest component. The composition of fly ash varies, but it frequently contains toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, mercury; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); and radioactive elements.

Most coal ash is stored in open landfills or ponds, and because it is not classified as a hazardous waste, there are limited federal regulations that govern its use, storage or disposal.


Local power plant.
Local power plant.


“Children are exposed to fly ash through inhalation and ingestion from fugitive dust emissions that come from power plant emissions, landfills and sludge ponds, putting 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,” Zierold said.  

An estimated 1.54 million children in the United States are exposed to coal ash. Kentucky ranks in the top five states for the amount of ash generated and ash storage, according to a 2011 Earth Justice report.

Study details

Zierold is recruiting 300 children ages 6-14 who live in neighborhoods located between 150 feet and a 10-mile radius of coal ash landfills and ponds in Louisville. Specific zip codes include: 40109, 40118, 40177, 40211, 40214, 40215, 40216, 40258, 40272.

The research team will conduct in-home air sampling to determine the presence of fly ash and metals. Parents will be asked to fill out questionnaires that will help characterize environmental exposure history and health history of the children.

In addition, researchers will collect toenail and fingernail clippings of children to test the level of metals such as manganese, chromium, and lead found within the children’s bodies. Children also will be asked to take tests on a computer to evaluate neurobehavioral performance.

All testing will be completed within the homes of those who take part in the study, which allows for one child per household. Parents will receive a $100 Visa gift card and the participating child will receive a $25 Visa gift card.

As the study progresses, Zierold plans to provide community members with the findings, both through direct contact and through community meetings. Upon completion of the study, Zierold will evaluate the relationships between coal ash and emotional and behavioral disorders and neurobehavioral performance.

More information also can be found on the study’s website.

Source: UofL study examining effects of coal ash exposure on children (UofL News, April 17, 2017)

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