For Immediate Release
Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Soaring Use of Coal Waste in Homes Risks Consumer Headaches
Could Chinese Wallboard Problems Start to Plague U.S. Industry?
WASHINGTON - The rising toxicity of coal combustion wastes used in U.S.
construction poses new public health and regulatory concerns, according
to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). New
evidence about toxic elements in re-used coal combustion wastes and the
absence of government regulation open the door to consumer traumas such
as occurred with Chinese wallboard, which afflicted thousands of homes
in the Southeastern U.S.
One of the biggest components of the
modern American home is gypsum, an average of more than 8 tons of which
is spread over more than 6,144 square feet of wallboard. Gypsum used in
wallboard now commonly comes from coal combustion waste as synthetic
gypsum generated primarily by flue gas desulfurization. In 2001, only
15% of the total domestic gypsum supply was synthetic gypsum. By 2009,
synthetic gypsum use had more than tripled, accounting for more than
half (57%) of the national supply.
Contaminated Chinese drywall
is synthetic gypsum and may have been used in more than 100,000 homes,
producing complaints of foul odors, damage to electrical systems and
illness. While the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has not
pinpointed the precise cause of the problem, it is now recommending that
consumers rip out any Chinese drywall in their homes, regardless of
cost. Chinese drywall is made from coal combustion wastes but in a less
refined form than used by U.S. drywall makers.
At the same
time, new anti-pollution requirements to reduce mercury emissions in
coal-fired plants are dramatically elevating the mercury content of U.S.
coal combustion wastes. Mercury is a neurotoxin and even low-level
exposure over time has been associated with fatigue, memory loss and
depression. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studies are finding
that mercury is released into the atmosphere during the manufacture of
synthetic gypsum. In addition, EPA is finding mercury in the synthetic
gypsum itself, both Chinese and domestic. In fact, the mercury levels
in one major source of U.S. synthetic gypsum was the highest of six
sources EPA tested - more than three times the highest Chinese sample
(2.08 parts per million versus 0.562 ppm) - in 2009.
happens to the mercury in the wallboard is less clear. The effects of
heat and humidity on mercury release remain to be investigated. Also
unknown is what happens at the product "end of life" - does
mercury-infused wallboard require special disposal or demolition
precautions? For example, currently old wallboard is land-filled or
used as a "soil amendment," where its elements can leach out over time.
"The question is whether you want mercury-laden wallboard in
your child's bedroom or school," asked PEER Executive Director Jeff
Ruch. "These questions about mercury in wallboard also need to be posed
for other coal wastes that are being used in everything from ice
removal to carpet backing to toothpaste."
At present, the Obama
administration is weighing a proposed regulation that would classify
coal ash and other combustion wastes as hazardous, requiring special
disposal to avoid direct human contact and prevent wastes from reaching
water supplies. This initiative was spurred by a massive coal ash spill
in December 2008 from TVA sludge ponds outside a Kentucky power-plant.
The current regulatory debate revolves around how to treat so-called
"beneficial uses" of coal combustion waste, such as gypsum. "Coal
combustion wastes are unquestionably hazardous and we trust that the
Obama administration will finally make that classification official,"
Ruch added, noting that the coal industry finances and controls most of
the research about coal waste re-use. "We desperately need independent
environmental and public health studies of the effects of injecting coal
wastes into your home, workplace and throughout the stream of
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.