New Potential Toxin Found in Coal Burning Emissions

Aug 30, 2017

Scientists have discovered a particle, created when coal is burned, that had never before been identified as part of that process. Preliminary studies show it is toxic to some fish. And there’s concern it could also be dangerous to humans.

Virginia Tech Geoscientist, Michael Hochella and his team first identified the tiny particle when in the Dan River after the coal ash spill in 2014. It’s called Titanium Sub-Oxide. When it’s trapped in ash, or otherwise contained, it’s not considered dangerous, but when it goes airborne, it could be.

In the U.S., clean air rules require high tech filters on coal plants. But when the team went to China, they found the Titanium Sub-Oxide nanoparticles everywhere; coating sidewalks, the sides of buildings, and floating in storm drains. Hochella says, the particles are so small that they travel easily on the wind and that means they’re now detectable, virtually everywhere.

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“In (coal) plants that are not fitted to trap this very fine ash that comes out in the emission gases, this material will be present. And will be distributed locally regionally, and globally.”

Hochella points out, people have been breathing these previously unknown particles for as long as we’ve been burning coal.  The question is, what, if any effect is there on human health? His lab has begun testing the nanoparticle in human lung cells.