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Ann Occup Hyg. 1997 Dec;41(6):659-76.

Toxicity and occupational health hazards of coal fly ash (CFA). A review of data and comparison to coal mine dust.

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  • 1Department of Health Risk Analysis & Toxicology, University of Maastricht, The Netherlands.


Coal fly ashes (CFA) are complex particles of a variable composition, which is mainly dependent on the combustion process, the source of coal and the precipitation technique. Toxic constituents in these particles are considered to be metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and silica. The purpose of this review was to study the in vitro and in vivo data on coal fly ash and relate the studied endpoints to the role of (crystalline) silica, considering its recent classification as a human carcinogen. For most of the effects coal mine dust was chosen as a reference, since it contains up to 10% of crystalline silica (alpha-quartz) and is well studied both in vivo and in vitro. Most studies on fly ash toxicity were not designed to elucidate the effect of its silica-content nor did they include coal mine dust as a reference. Taking this into account, both in vitro and in vivo experimental studies show lower toxicity, inflammatory potential and fibrogenicity of CFA compared to silica and coal mine dust. Although in vitro and in vivo studies suggest genotoxic effects of fly ash, the data are limited and do not clarify the role of silica. Epidemiological studies in fly ash exposed working populations have found no evidence for effects commonly seen in coal workers (pneumoconiosis, emphysema) with the exception of airway obstruction at high exposure. In conclusion, the available data suggest that the hazard of coal fly ash is not to be assessed by merely adding the hazards of individual components. A closer investigation of 'matrix' effects on silica's toxicity in general seems an obligatory step in future risk assessment on fly ashes and other particles that incorporate silica as a component.

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