The final stage of coal’s lifecycle is the heavy-metal-laden toxic waste left after coal is burned. This waste has been linked to cancer, kidney damage and other ailments.
The total amount of coal combustion wastes produced is staggering: In the United States alone about 130 million tons of coal combustion waste products are produced every year, which is about the same as all the residential solid waste generated in the US per year. Most coal power waste winds up in landfills, surface impoundments or in mines whereas smaller amounts are used for e.g. cement or concrete production.
Rates of coal power waste recycling are high in some European countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium, but worryingly low among the three largest consumers of coal, China, the US and India (33 percent, 38 percent and less than 5 percent respectively).
Typically, solid waste is stored in landfills, while liquid waste is stored in impoundments. Ideally these disposal sites should be designed to prevent the toxic wastes from entering the environment. But a recent US industry survey of disposal units revealed that this is not the case. About 40 percent of the coal waste landfills and 80 percent of the coal waste surface impoundments in the US lack liners.
Effects on health
Toxic levels of arsenic, cadmium, chromium and lead can be found in coal-fueled power plant waste. If these contaminants enter the environment - through dust, leaching into groundwater or from discharges into surface waters - they can contaminate drinking water supplies and accumulate in livestock and crops.
Arsenic has been associated with cancer, and cardiovascular and neurological damage.
Cadmium has been linked to kidney damage, plus risks of prostate and respiratory cancer.
Lead is extremely dangerous for children and has been linked to developmental delay, hypertension, impaired hearing acuity, impaired hemoglobin synthesis, and male reproductive impairment. The US Environment Protection Agency found that the average health risks to the public due to metals from power plant waste disposal units could be up to 10,000 times higher than their allowable risk levels for cancer and other illnesses