Norfolk Southern permeates its own hometown, Norfolk, Virginia, with coal dust.
"If the contamination in the air is coal dust, it doesn't matter if it goes to the lungs or my window sill, it shouldn't happen."
The Tobacco Industry Parallel
Norfolk Southern's denials and the politicians' ho-hum reliance on them are reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s erstwhile propaganda campaign.
Science does indeed know that coal dust contains a slew of nasty toxins: arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, and other toxic heavy metals that are most harmful to developing fetuses and growing children. Science also knows the effects coal dust has had on the lungs of all those sick and dead coal miners. But those miners were breathing the stuff in much higher concentrations, right? Well, back when the tobacco companies were trying to bamboozle everyone about the health issues of cigarettes, who could have even imagined that the relatively low concentrations of secondhand cigarette smoke could possibly harm anyone?
(another excellent article by Virginian-Pilot writer Aaron Applegate)
The coal that Norfolk Southern ships through Norfolk originates from roughly 75 mines in Alabama, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. These mines are found in the Appalachian and Eastern Interior coal basins where relatively high concentrations of arsenic are also found. A 2007 ODU study suggested that concentrations of arsenic in Norfolk soils has increased 2 to 20 times due to the presence of coal, with concentrations increasing with proximity to Norfolk Southern's Lamberts Point coal loading facilities.
A Serious Health Concern
Coal dust contains very fine so-called PM 2.5 particles (particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter). These are the most harmful particulates because they can pass from our lungs to our bloodstream. PM 2.5 particles can alter the body's defense systems against foreign materials, damage lung tissues, aggravate existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and can lead to cancer. In some cases, PM 2.5 exposure can even lead to premature death. Adverse health effects have been associated with exposures to PM 2.5 over both short periods (such as a day) and longer periods (a year or more). The people who are most at risk are people with asthma, influenza, lung, heart, or cardiovascular disease, the elderly, and children. Particles that are smaller than 5 microns can get into the bronchial tubes and the top of the lungs. Particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter can get into the deepest portion of the lungs where the gas exchange occurs between the air and blood stream. These are the most dangerous particles because the body has no efficient mechanisms for removing them.
So maybe you've always suffered from some respiratory distress. Maybe your IQ isn't quite as high as it could have been. Maybe you get cancer. Who's to say what caused any of it?
But How Much of These Toxins Leach into People's Bodies?
This is something that needs more study, because no one seems to know for sure. So should we engage in wishful thinking and simply assume that these toxins remain bound up in those coal dust particulates that we ingest or breathe in, or do these toxins leach out of those tiny "rocks" with their high surface area to mass ratios? Are the extra profits that Norfolk Southern gets to keep by not stopping the dust worth the unknown risks?
Lots more arsenic in the soil of Norfolk
In 2007 ODU researchers collected and analyzed soil samples from Norfolk. Soil closest to the coal loading terminal was found to contain five times as much arsenic as other soil from the area: "Arsenic Addition to Soils from Airborne Coal Dust Originating at a Major Coal Shipping Terminal" Bounds and Johannesson, 2007)