Slurry and Human Health

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There is a growing body of evidence that coal sludge is toxic to human health.  Independent testing of coal sludge has found at least one violation of Safe Drinking Water Act standards for every metal except mercury.  Many of these heavy metals have known health effects and can effect nearly every system of the body (see chart below).  Less is known about the health effects of the processing chemicals used in the preparation plants.  A chemical of particular concern is polyacrylamide.  When polyacrylamide breaks down, it becomes acrylamide monomers, known to be highly neurotoxic, carcinogenic and genotoxic.  Evidence of neurologic damage in preparation plant workers from use of acrylamide has prompted class action lawsuits on the workers behalf.

The US Geologic Survey has been investigating the toxicity of coal slurry.  A recent study exposed human liver cells to concentrations of slurry from the impoundment in Rawl, W.Va.  Even at one percent coal slurry, the liver cells were significantly damaged.  Links between organic compounds found in coal and coal slurry and kidney disease have also been found.  Since the composition of coal slurry is highly variable and there are some many different constituents, the cumulative effects of slurry exposure are largely unknown.  Often exposure to one metal, such as manganese, can make someone much more vulnerable to damage from another metal, such as lead.  Much more research needs to be done into the effects of simultaneous exposure to a wide range of heavy metals and other coal related toxins.

In communities where there is evidence of slurry contamination, residents have experienced a wide range of serious illnesses.  According to a medical expert, the contaminated water in the Rawl area caused residents to suffer from kidney and liver disease, serious diarrea, skin rashes, tooth loss and several different cancers.  In Prenter, community health surveys found most residents had had gallbadder surgery.  Slurry exposed communities have also shown neurologic damages in high rates of neuropathy, ADD, and learning disabilities.  On one stretch of road in Prenter there were 5 diagonsed brain tumors including a baby.  Cancers have claimed victims in their twenties.  While we may not yet understand all of the causes, there is more than enough evidence of a serious public health hazard to take action now to protect drinking water.



Possible Health Effects

EPA Drinking Water Standard (mg/L)


Increased risk for Alzheimer’s Disease³

Bone disease in children


0.05 to 0.2 mg/L


Skin damage, circulatory problems, increased risk of cancer¹

Skin lesions or discoloration, neuropathy, skin cancer, bladder and lung cancers and peripheral vascular disease ³



Increase in blood pressure¹




Intestinal lesions¹



Kidney Damage¹ Anemia, Osteomalacia, osteoporosis, bone fractures, and decreased bone mineral density, renal dysfunction ⁵



Allergic dermatitis¹

Kidney Disease⁶



Short term: Gastrointestinal distress.

Long term exposure: liver or kidney damage.¹



Rapid and shallow respiration, coma, convulsions, respiratory failure, and cardiac

arrest.⁹ Moderate to severe diarrhea.


0.3 mg/L


Children: delays in physical /mental

development, deficits in attention span and learning ability

Adults: Kidney problems, high blood pressure¹

Impaired renal function, hypertension, impaired fertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes³



Parkinson’s Disease⁸



Hair or fingernail loss, numbness in fingers or toes, circulatory problems¹

Gastrointestinal disturbances, discoloration of the skin, decayed teeth, hair or nail loss, nail

abnormalities and changes in peripheral nerves³



Increase in Blood Pressure²




Gastrointestinal hemorrhages, anemia⁷


  1. The EPA’s Drinking Water Contaminants
  2. Drinking Water Advisory: Consumer Acceptability Advice and Health Effects Analysis on Sodium
  3. World Health Organization. Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality, Fourth Edition.
  4. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
  5. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
  6. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
  7. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
  8. Connecticut Department of Public Health Drinking Water Section Fact Sheet: Manganese in Drinking Water
  9. World Health Organization: Iron in Drinking Water

Hydrogen sulfide (inhalation, not ingestion)

  • The acute toxicity to humans of hydrogen sulfide following inhalation of the gas is high; eye irritation can be observed at concentrations of 15–30 mg/m3.
  • Hydrogen sulfide is a highly flammable gas and gas/air mixtures can be explosive.
  • Hydrogen sulfide is both an irritant and a chemical asphyxiant with effects on both oxygen utilization and the central nervous system.
  • Low concentrations irritate the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory system (e.g., burning/tearing of eyes, cough, shortness of breath).Asthmatics may experience breathing difficulties
  • Repeated or prolonged exposures may cause eye inflammation, headache, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, digestive disturbances and weight loss.
  • Moderate concentrations can cause more severe eye and respiratory irritation (including coughing, difficulty breathing, accumulation of fluid in the lungs), headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, staggering and excitability.
  • High concentrations can cause shock, convulsions, inability to breathe, extremely rapid unconsciousness, coma and death. Effects can occur within a few breaths, and possibly a single breath.
  1. OSHA Fact Sheet: Hydrogen Sulfide