Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai Exposed to Toxic Coal Ash via Sandstorms

Press release - 2011-04-13
Dust is not the only makeup of China’s infamous sandstorms, which also contain toxic pollutants from coal combustion, according to a new Greenpeace report, The True Cost of Coal – Coal Dust Storms: Toxic Wind. Sandstorms can disperse coal ash – containing arsenic, selenium and lead – far from their origin in coal-industry areas to eastern China, posing health and environmental threats to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

The wind blankets the air with coal ash. Yuanbaoshan Power Plant, Chifeng, Inner Mongolia.

Beijing - Dust is not the only makeup of China's infamous sandstorms, which also contain toxic pollutants from coal combustion, according to a new Greenpeace report, The True Cost of Coal - Coal Dust Storms: Toxic Wind. Sandstorms can disperse coal ash - containing arsenic, selenium and lead - far from their origin in coal-industry areas to eastern China, posing health and environmental threats to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

"Sandstorms can actually be called 'coal dust storms'," said Greenpeace Climate and Energy Campaigner Dr. Sun Qingwei. "Coal ash is a very tiny and light particle, easily picked up by wind. Winds traveling at 8 meters per second can already disperse coal ash up to 150,000 square kilometers from their origins in open-air dumping sites. And winds in a sandstorm are even stronger, with speeds of at least 25 meters per second - thus they can spread coal ash much farther. This means that even people who live far from thermal power plants in eastern and southern China must face the threat of coal pollution at their doorstep."

China's main sandstorm routes overlap with major coal-mining and thermal-power generation hubs of northern China, such as Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Shaanxi. As sandstorms move south and east through this heavily polluted coal-industrial zone, they pick up a large amount of coal ash, raw coal dust, flue gas and other pollutants, eventually depositing them on densely populated eastern China, threatening public health.

In a decade-long study of the impact of sandstorms on air quality in Beijing and Shanghai, report co-author Professor Zhuang Guoshun of Fudan University found that the storms contain a large number of pollutants specific to coal, including arsenic, antimony, selenium, lead, sulfur compounds and organic pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a carcinogen. For example, when a sandstorm hit Shanghai in April 2007, levels of arsenic in the atmosphere climbed to more than 53 times higher than the average level on a normal day.

"Sandstorms have become a medium for spreading coal pollution, multiplying the reach and impact of coal burning and worsening urban air quality," said Prof. Zhuang.

A byproduct of coal combustion, one ton of coal ash is produced for every four tons of coal burned, making it China's single largest industrial solid pollutant. However, as revealed in Greenpeace's 2010 report The True Cost of Coal: An Investigation into Coal Ash in China, most thermal power plants lack effective measures to manage coal ash. Simply dumped in open-air disposal sites, toxic coal ash is highly vulnerable to wind dispersion.

"Huge quantities of coal ash are on the pathways of potential sandstorms, waiting to cause environmental and public health problems far and wide in China," said Dr. Sun. "The government needs to shift its sole priority away from coal ash reutilization and focus more on managing the environment impact of the waste itself. We call upon the government to launch strict regulations to prevent coal ash pollution, especially in regards to its wind dispersal. But the real answer is to move China away from its excessive reliance on coal as soon as possible, and towards a future of renewable energy and energy efficiency."

Download the full English report, The True Cost of Coal - Coal Dust Storms: Toxic Wind

Coal Ash and Dust in China: View the Slideshow

Other contacts:

Wei Huang, Greenpeace Media Officer
+86 (010) 6554 6931 ext. 157

Dr. Qingwei Su, Greenpeace Campaiger
+86 (010) 6554 6931 ext. 196

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