Exposure-Reducing Behaviors Among Residents Living Near a Coal Ash Storage Site

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Abstract

Coal ash, a waste product generated from burning coal for energy, is composed of highly respirable particles containing heavy metals, radioactive elements, and polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons. Coal ash is stored in landfills and surface impoundments frequently located near neighborhoods. Fugitive dust from the storage sites exposes neighborhoods, affecting the health and welfare of residents. The research questions of interest were (1) are community members concerned about coal ash exposure from the storage site; (2) what, if any, behaviors do community members engage in to reduce exposure; and (3) do exposure reducing behaviors differ by level of concern about coal ash. A community-based mixed-methods approach was used. Focus groups (n = 26) were conducted in 2012, and a cross-sectional survey was administered in 2013 (n = 231). The majority of survey respondents (62%) worried “a lot” about being exposed to coal ash; however, most did not engage in exposure-reducing behaviors, such as wearing protective equipment when doing chores. Compared with respondents who worry “some, very little, or none,” or responded “I don’t know,” respondents who worried “a lot” about being exposed to coal ash did more exposure-reducing behaviors outdoors (p < .001) and indoors (p = .01). For people living near environmental hazards, reducing exposure is a priority. Although challenging because of the chronic nature of exposure, some behaviors can be useful in reducing exposure, such as wearing a particle-specific respirator when mowing the lawn. Communities at risk for chronic exposure to environmental toxins could benefit from education about exposure-reducing behaviors.

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