|Coal fly ash is used in many home building supplies.|
Image credit: Royce Hansman
I’ve noticed over the years that the definitions of toxicity and hazard are frequently confused, both in popular understanding and among government regulators. This last fact can have dramatic impacts on policy decisions.
Let’s look at an innocuous example; water. Water is an element necessary for life that we need to consume every day, but water can be harmful to someone who can’t swim, for example.
So, even the most useful substances can become hazardous under the “right,” or wrong, conditions.
This comes to my mind because of recent concerns raised by the environmental community concerning coal fly ash.
For those who aren’t familiar with coal fly ash, it’s basically a component of the generation of electricity made from coal. Looking at it under a microscope, coal fly ash is essentially small glass beads.
Currently, coal fly ash is being “captured” at coal-fired power plants and is reused in the production of materials designed for the building industry, such as cement and bricks, wallboard, and in some instances, carpet backing. This process provides a way to recycle and reuse material that would otherwise be sent to landfills.
Why is there a concern then?
Around five or six years ago, some impounded coal ash held in collection pits was accidentally released into a stream when an earthen dam failed, causing environmental damage for many downstream residents.
That was definitely a problem, but the event generated a movement to regulate coal fly ash and to label it as a hazardous substance.
It’s very clear that the answer isn’t to ban the use of coal fly ash altogether, or classify it as a hazardous substance, but rather to regulate coal fly ash impoundment appropriately.
To read more on Toxicity vs. Hazardous Substances, click here.