High mercury levels in soil near coal-fired power plants

mercury levels in soil near a coal-fired powerplant in IndianaWe have known for some time that coal-fired power plants emit heavy metals into the air, among which is mercury. Most of these highly toxic particles end up in waterways, through which they sometimes spread as far as to other continents, contaminating fish along the way and making them unsafe for human consumption.

But now a new study which appeared in this month’s issue of the journal Water, Air & Soil Pollution shows that mercury levels are also elevated in soil in the direct vicinity of coal-fired power plants. The researchers from the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) looked at land, testing soil samples, detecting hot spots of mercury contamination in central Indiana specifically tied to local coal-fired power plants by chemical signatures.

In the case of the study, the mercury contaminated soil was then blown by wind in a northeasterly direction and subsequently brought back by waterways to the southwest. Obviously wind and water flow directions vary with location, but the process of soil contamination followed by transportation of mercury downstream remains the same.

The impact of mercury soil contamination on human health in urban areas can be enormous considering mercury poisoning can cause permanent neurological damage in humans and brain defects in unborn babies. According to Gabriel M. Filippelli, director of the Center for Urban Health at IUPUI, coal-fired power plants create a false economy this way. They seem to produce electricity at a relatively low cost, but their impact on human health and related costs are not taken into account.

So a small tip for those of you living downwind from a coal-fired power plant: do not grow your own vegetables in the backyard. Or maybe even better: move upwind.

© Jorn van Dooren | www.bitsofscience.org

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