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Cancer-causing metals leak into water near coal ash landfills 

Researchers from the University of Mary Washington have discovered alarming levels of cancer-causing metals in both the sediments and fish of a Chesapeake Bay tributary situated near a coal ash landfill. 

This research, led by Dr. Tyler Frankel, highlights previously overlooked dangers posed by trace metal contamination in aquatic ecosystems.

The study represents a significant step forward in understanding the environmental and health risks associated with metal contamination near coal ash landfills. 

Focus of the study

The researchers set out to investigate the role of sediments in the storage, release, and transportation of trace metals in waterways. 

The study was initiated in an effort to address a gap in risk management concerning these contaminants, specifically in relation to aquatic species and their habitats.

“While the ecological impacts of large scale accidental releases such as the Kingston coal ash spill are well documented, little is known about the effects of chronic exposure to contamination stemming from leaking repositories,” wrote the study authors. 

Key findings

The research was focused on areas surrounding five coal ash facilities in Virginia. The results were alarming. Coal ash, a common industrial waste in the U.S., contains several water-soluble metals such as cadmium, selenium, mercury, lead, and arsenic. 

The experts found that there were significantly increased levels of these metals in the sediments at the bottoms of waterways and within the tissues of banded killifish living near the coal ash landfills.

“These waterways serve as important routes for several migratory fish species and sensitive nursery habitats for various endemic species,” said Dr. Frankel. “Our work highlights the importance of considering this exposure pathway in conservation strategies.”  

Health implications 

The health implications of these findings are severe. Long-term exposure to metals like arsenic, cadmium, and chromium is linked to cancer, cardiovascular risks, and other health issues in both wildlife and humans. 

Furthermore, these contaminants increase in concentration as they progress up the food web, posing threats to predatory fish and birds, noted Dr. Frankel. He emphasized the importance of this research in the broader context of environmental stewardship.

“As the Chesapeake Bay watershed is one of the largest and most productive estuaries in the United States, understanding our impacts on its waterways is critical to the long-term stewardship of this precious resource,” said Dr. Frankel.

Funding and support

The research was made possible through a $92,037 grant from the Morris Animal Foundation. This funding not only supported field sampling and laboratory analyses but also allowed the findings to be distributed to national societies, including the Chesapeake Potomac Regional Chapter of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. The grant also provided training opportunities for emerging scientists.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Pollution

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