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Coal Ash Used to De-Ice Roads Poses Contamination Concerns
Coal ash—the residue from burning coal to generate electricity—is abundant and cheap. Often free for the taking, in fact. And it’s one way that at least some Midwestern communities provide traction on snowy and icy roads.
But what’s left behind in the nearby water and soil when this byproduct from coal-fired power plants is spread on roads?
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Tom Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, dismisses the bottom ash used on roadways as mere “coal dirt.” And although it harbors varying amounts of toxic heavy metals including arsenic, lead, chromium and cadmium, Adams says the amounts are no higher than in the rock and dirt native to many areas of the country.
“None of these things exist in concentrations anywhere near what the EPA is concerned about,” he said.
Barb Gottlieb, director of environment and health for Physicians for Social Responsibility, isn’t so sure.
“This should be recognized as a problem,” Gottlieb said.
The heavy metals present in coal ash are, at sufficient concentrations, “some of the most dangerous substances in the world.” Chromium, for example, is a “very dangerous carcinogen,” especially when wet, Gottlieb noted.
"This Isn’t Sand"
Lisa Evans, a lawyer who focuses on coal ash-related issues for Earthjustice, said it’s not clear just how the metals in coal ash might impact their surroundings.
The technology generally used to assess the toxicity of coal ash has been dismissed as largely uninformative, and a new process approved two years ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not yet in wide use.
“I don’t think it can be assumed to be safe,” Evans said. “This isn’t sand. It’s not benign.”
Adding to the uncertainty about the environmental and health effects of coal ash is a broader lack of government oversight. The EPA has made attempts to write regulations pertaining to the disposal and use of coal ash, but has been hampered repeatedly by Congress.
Regulations at the state level are spotty. In Missouri, for example, bottom ash used on roads is specifically exempted from the oversight provided by the solid-waste permit process, provided that “a health hazard is not created.”
"They Wouldn’t Give It to Us if It Wasn’t Safe"
The use of coal ash—also known as cinders—to create traction on snowy and icy roads goes way back.
Joe Feldman remembers the black grit underfoot when he was growing up decades ago in the country near St. Louis. Now, as the public works director for Franklin County, MO, he occasionally sends trucks to Ameren Missouri’s Labadie coal-fired plant, located outside of St. Louis, to fill up with bottom ash.
Nationwide, according to the Coal Ash Association, some 256,000 tons of waste from coal-burning plants—the bulk of it what’s known as bottom ash, leftover at the bottom of the combustion chamber after coal is burned—were distributed for use on roads in 2012.
Among utilities in the Midwest, American Electric Power, for example, distributes about 3.5 percent of the bottom ash from its 25 coal-fired plants for use on roads. A spokesman for Ameren Missouri said that “less than two percent of our total ash production” is distributed for use on roads. It goes to numerous nearby communities as well as the state’s transportation department.
And the city power utility in Muscatine, IA, provides ash both to Muscatine’s public works department and several communities in Illinois.
For public works departments, the deal provides an effective salt substitute for minimal or no cost.
“I’m a big supporter of cinders,” said Randy Hill, Muscatine’s director of public works. He doesn’t believe bottom ash poses any health or environmental threat.
“They wouldn’t give it to us if it wasn’t safe,” Hill said. “It seems to pass all its requirements.”
Questions About Testing
While test results for ash used in Muscatine don’t indicate a problem, Lisa Evans, of Earthjustice, is less confident about the assurances. The amount of heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium and cadmium can vary significantly, depending on the source of the coal, and how it was burned.
An EPA test of many samples of bottom ash found that the concentration of arsenic, for example, ranged from 0.5 to 168 parts per million (ppm), with a median of 4.5. Typical levels of arsenic in soil range from 1 to 40 ppm, with an average of 3-4 ppm, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
However, although utilities and state environmental protection agencies do sometimes test samples of bottom coal ash in an attempt to assess the toxicity of liquid leaching from it, Evans said there are issues with the test.
One procedure that is frequently used—the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP)—is not a reliable instrument, she said. It is designed to gauge leachate from a material stored in a sanitary landfill. That is a very different environment from a road, Evans said, where ash undoubtedly would get wet, and perhaps wash into a ditch or storm sewer where it would stay wet and possibly leach toxic compounds into water and soil.
David Kosson shares Evans’ concerns. He is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Engineering at Vanderbilt University, and was involved in developing what is thought to be a more accurate measurement of toxic leachate from a wide variety of potentially dangerous materials.
As far back as 1990, the EPA was questioning the best way to assess the true hazards posed by heavy metals and other potential toxic compounds. The EPA consulted its Science Advisory Board about the need for a suitable way to measure toxic leachate.
In a 1999 letter to then EPA Administrator Carol Browner, the committee wrote, that its “single most important recommendation is that EPA improve leach test procedures, validate them in the field and then implement them.”
Kosson was involved in developing a group of four tests, known as the leaching environmental assessment framework, or LEAF. The tests are capable of reflecting a range of different conditions, and so are more accurate than the tests that came before.
The EPA only formally approved widespread use of the LEAF tests in 2012, Kosson said. And he believes they are not widely used at this point. That means that assurances about the safety of bottom ash used on roads likely are based on bad information from an inappropriate test, or no information.
The widely-used TCLP, “has no relevance” to the question about the safety of bottom ash on roads, Kosson said.
Kosson said that the LEAF test would be “appropriate” for assessing toxicity of bottom ash, and that “There are not other tests that would provide the same information and be as useful.”
Given the persistent questions about how the toxins in coal ash behave in the environment, Evans contends that the ash needs to be tested using the LEAF analysis, the latest technology, before it’s handed out to be distributed far and wide.
And in the absence of that analysis, Gottlieb said, “Because we don’t know, we have to be careful, and not use toxic substances that can leak into the water or be inhaled.”
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tom Duszynski
The coronavirus is certainly scary, but despite the constant reporting on total cases and a climbing death toll, the reality is that the vast majority of people who come down with COVID-19 survive it. Just as the number of cases grows, so does another number: those who have recovered.
In mid-March, the number of patients in the U.S. who had officially recovered from the virus was close to zero. That number is now in the tens of thousands and is climbing every day. But recovering from COVID-19 is more complicated than simply feeling better. Recovery involves biology, epidemiology and a little bit of bureaucracy too.
How does your body fight off COVID-19?<p>Once a person is exposed the coronavirus, the body starts producing <a href="https://www.mblintl.com/products/what-are-antibodies-mbli/" target="_blank">proteins called antibodies to fight the infection</a>. As these <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/27/serological-tests-reveal-immune-coronavirus/" target="_blank">antibodies start to successfully contain the virus</a> and keep it from replicating in the body, symptoms usually begin to lessen and you start to feel better. Eventually, if all goes well, your immune system will completely destroy all of the virus in your system. A person who was infected with and survived a virus with no long-term health effects or disabilities has "recovered."</p><p>On average, a person who is infected with SARS-CoV-2 will feel ill for about seven days from the onset of symptoms. Even after symptoms disappear, there still may be small amounts of the virus in a patient's system, and they should stay <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/steps-when-sick.html" target="_blank">isolated for an additional three days</a> to ensure they have truly <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">recovered and are no longer infectious</a>.</p>
What about immunity?<p>In general, once you have recovered from a viral infection, your body will keep cells called lymphocytes in your system. These cells "remember" viruses they've previously seen and can react quickly to fight them off again. If you are exposed to a virus you have already had, your antibodies will likely stop the virus before it starts causing symptoms. <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.5114%2Fceji.2018.77390" target="_blank">You become immune</a>. This is the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK27158/" target="_blank">principle behind many vaccines</a>.</p><p>Unfortunately, immunity isn't perfect. For many viruses, like mumps, immunity can wane over time, leaving you <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160421145747.htm" target="_blank">susceptible to the virus in the future</a>. This is why you need to get revaccinated – those "booster shots" – occasionally: to prompt your immune system to make more antibodies and memory cells.</p><p>Since this coronavirus is so new, scientists still don't know whether people who recover from COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/faq.html" target="_blank">immune to future infections of the virus</a>. Doctors are finding antibodies in ill and recovered patients, and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/clinical-guidance-management-patients.html" target="_blank">that indicates the development of immunity</a>. But the question remains how long that immunity will last. Other coronaviruses like <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.25685" target="_blank">SARS and MERS produce an immune response</a> that will protect a person at least for a short time. I would suspect the same is true of SARS-CoV-2, but the research simply hasn't been done yet to say so definitively.</p>
Why have so few people officially recovered in the US?<p>This is a dangerous virus, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being extremely careful when deciding what it means to recover from COVID-19. Both medical and testing criteria must be met before a person is <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/disposition-in-home-patients.html" target="_blank">officially declared recovered</a>.</p><p>Medically, a person must be fever-free without fever-reducing medications for three consecutive days. They must show an improvement in their other symptoms, including reduced coughing and shortness of breath. And it must be at least seven full days <a href="https://health.usnews.com/conditions/articles/coronavirus-recovery-what-to-know" target="_blank">since the symptoms began</a>.</p><p>In addition to those requirements, the CDC guidelines say that a person must test negative for the coronavirus twice, with the <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/if-you-are-sick/care-for-someone.html" target="_blank">tests taken at least 24 hours apart</a>.</p><p>Only then, if both the symptom and testing conditions are met, is a person officially considered recovered by the CDC.</p><p>This second testing requirement is likely why there were so few official recovered cases in the U.S. until late March. Initially, there was a <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/health/coronavirus-test-shortages-face-masks-swabs.html" target="_blank">massive shortage of testing in the U.S.</a> So while many people were certainly recovering over the last few weeks, this could not be officially confirmed. As the country enters the height of the pandemic in the coming weeks, focus is still on <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/hcp/clinical-criteria.html" target="_blank">testing those who are infected</a>, not those who have likely recovered.</p><p>Many more people are being tested now that states and private companies have begun <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/testing-in-us.html" target="_blank">producing and distributing tests</a>. As <a href="https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200406/coronavirus-in-ohio-from-its-rocky-start-testing-for-covid-19-slowly-ramping-up" target="_blank">the number of available tests increases</a> and the pandemic eventually slows in the country, more testing will be available for those who have appeared to recover. As people who have already recovered are tested, the appearance of any new infections will help researchers learn <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/24/we-need-smart-coronavirus-testing-not-just-more-testing/" target="_blank">how long immunity can be expected to last</a>.</p>
Once a person has recovered, what can they do?<p>Knowing whether or not people are immune to COVID-19 after they recover is going to determine what individuals, communities and society at large can do going forward. If scientists can show that recovered patients are immune to the coronavirus, then a person who has recovered could in theory <a href="https://www.vox.com/2020/3/30/21186822/immunity-to-covid-19-test-coronavirus-rt-pcr-antibody" target="_blank">help support the health care system</a> by caring for those who are infected.</p><p>Once communities pass the peak of the epidemic, the number of new infections will decline, while the number of <a href="https://www.newsweek.com/china-says-passed-peak-coronavirus-epidemic-covid-19-1491863" target="_blank">recovered people will increase</a>. As these trends continue, the risk of transmission will fall. Once the risk of transmission has fallen enough, community-level isolation and social distancing orders will begin to relax and businesses will start to reopen. Based on what other countries have gone through, it will be <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00154-w" target="_blank">months until the risk of transmission is low</a> in the U.S.</p><p>But before any of this can happen, the U.S. and the world need to make it through the peak of this pandemic. Social distancing works to slow the spread of infectious diseases and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/what-you-can-do.html" target="_blank">is working for COVID-19</a>. Many people will <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/2019-novel-coronavirus/" target="_blank">need medical help to recover</a>, and social distancing will slow this virus down and give people the best chance to do so.</p>
By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
The future for the world's oceans often looks grim. Fisheries are set to collapse by 2048, according to one study, and 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year, causing considerable damage to delicate marine ecosystems. Yet a new study in Nature offers an alternative, and more optimistic view on the ocean's future: it asserts that the entire marine environment could be substantially rebuilt by 2050, if humanity is able to step up to the challenge.
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By Zulfikar Abbany
Bread has been a source of basic nutrition for centuries, the holy trinity being wheat, maize and rice. It has also been the reason for a lot of innovation in science and technology, from millstones to microbiological investigations into a family of single-cell fungi called Saccharomyces.
Chemical leavening<p>If you like a little heft in your loaf, you will need a leavening agent.</p><p>For those short on time, you can use baking soda. That's a chemical compound of sodium bicarbonate mixed with potassium bitartrate, or cream of tartar.</p><p>Soda breads have their traditions in parts of eastern and central Europe, and in Ireland and Scotland, with Melrose loaves and "farls."</p><p>They can taste a bit bland, though, and are often considered only as an emergency solution on Sundays. No disrespect intended: They taste just fine fresh from the oven.</p><p>Whether it's chemical or more "natural," leavening relies largely on the production of carbon dioxide.</p><p>When you mix an acid, such as vinegar, buttermilk, yogurt or apple cider, with an alkaline compound like baking soda, you get CO2. That CO2 creates bubbles, which in turn capture steam in the oven and allow a bread to rise.</p><p><span></span>But it's better with yeast. Tastes better, too. It just takes more time. </p>
What is yeast?<p>There are yeasts all around us — on grains, in the air, in biofuels. It even lives inside us, but that's not always a good thing.</p><p><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1090575/pdf/1471-2334-5-22.pdf" target="_blank">Candida yeast</a> can cause infections of the skin, feet, mouth, penis or vagina if it builds up too much in the body.</p><p>One of the most common yeasts, however, is <em>Saccharomyces cerevisiae</em>. That's <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/an-early-beer-archaeologists-tap-ground-at-worlds-oldest-brewery/a-45480731" target="_blank">"brewer's"</a> or "baker's" yeast.</p><p>You can get fresh baker's yeast, often in 42-gram (1.48-ounce) cubes, or as dried yeast (quick action or active, which requires rehydration) in a sachet of 7 grams.</p><p>There's little difference: One is compressed and the other is dehydrated and granulated. But they do the same thing, essentially. </p><p>Some commercial yeast producers add molasses and other nutrients. But natural yeast has plenty of useful nutrients in it anyway, including B group vitamins, so who knows whether it's good or necessary to add them. </p>
How does yeast work?<p>When you mix flour, yeast and water, you set off a veritable chain reaction. Enzymes in the wheat convert starch into sugar. And the yeast creates enzymes of its own to convert those sugars into a form it can absorb.</p><p>The yeast "feeds" on the sugars to create carbon dioxide and alcohol. The yeast burps and farts, releasing gases into the mix, and that creates bubbles to trap CO2. </p><p>It's a vital fermentation process that breaks down the gluten in the flour and helps make your bread more digestible.</p><p>The yeast cells split and reproduce, generating lactic and carbonic acid, raising the temperature and ultimately adding flavor to the mix.</p><p>The longer you leave the yeast to do its thing, the better for your bread. Time is more important than the amount of yeast. </p><p>In fact, that's an enduring question — how much yeast? I'll use 20 grams fresh yeast for 500 grams of flour. Others say that's enough yeast for 1 kilo. If you are converting a dry-yeast recipe to fresh yeast, some bakers advise tripling the weight. So, if a sachet of dried yeast is 7 grams, your fresh yeast is 21 grams.</p><p><span></span>But that also depends on the flours you are using, temperatures in the bowl and the room, and a host of other things. You'll just have to experiment and see. No number of books (and I've read a stack on bread) will help as much as trial and error.</p>
Wild yeast: Sourdough<p>So, good bread needs time. If you have a lot of time, why not move it up a notch and grow wild yeast — a sourdough starter — in your own home?</p><p>A sourdough starter is not to be mistaken (as it often is) for the leaven, or "mother," "sponge," or <em>levain</em>. That's more a second stage, a descendant of the starter. You take a scoop from your starter and add it to another flour and water mixture when you prepare the dough for a new loaf. </p><p>The sourdough process utilizes yeasts naturally present in flour and … yet more time. A longer fermentation process allows a richer lactic acid bacteria <em>lactobacilli</em> or LAB to evolve, and that can be healthy for your gut microbiome.</p><p>It's simple enough to start a sourdough starter. All you need is flour, warm water and time.</p><p>Some suggest equal measures of whole-grain flour and water at 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), some say room temperature — just don't let the water exceed 40 C or the yeasts will die. Some suggest two parts flour to three parts water. But it's up to you whether you want a drier or wetter starter. You will know only through experimentation. </p><p>Some say you should filter tap water to remove chemicals like fluoride and avoid using water that's boiled and then cooled. Others say that really doesn't matter.</p><p>The main thing is, keep it clean and give it time. Days, weeks, months and years.</p>
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