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Indoor coal ash and school and social competency among children aged 6–14 years



A child’s ability to succeed in social interactions and in a school setting are important for their development and growth. Exposure to environmental pollutants has been associated with poorer school performance and fewer social interaction in children. Fly ash, a waste product generated when burning coal for energy, is comprised of small glass spheres with neurotoxic heavy metal(loid)s found to be risk factors for learning and social problems in school.


The purpose of this novel study was to assess the association of fly ash in children’s homes with school and social competency.


We recruited children aged 6–14 years old from communities located within 10 miles of two coal-burning power plants. In homes of the participants, fly ash was collected on polycarbonate filters using personal modular impactors. We measured school competency and social competency using the validated Child Behavioral Checklist. Using Tobit and linear regression we investigated the relationship of indoor fly ash with school and social competency.


Forty-three percent of children in the study had fly ash in their homes. In covariate-adjusted Tobit models, children with fly ash in their homes scored on average 2.63 (95% CI: −4.98, −0.28) points lower on the school competency scale than peers without ash in their homes. We did not observe that fly ash in homes was related with lower social competency.


Results from this study suggest that children with fly ash in their homes had poorer performance in the school setting, compared to peers without fly ash in their homes. In the US, coal-fired power plants are being closed, however health concerns about pollution from coal ash storage facilities remains. Findings from this study can provide impetus for creating of public health policy and to highlight the need future research on children’s exposure to fly ash.


Children’s growth and development are impacted by their social interactions and ability to perform in school settings. Environmental pollutants may impact these essential elements of development. Millions of children are exposed to fly ash which is a waste product generated from burning coal. Fly ash, an environmental health threat throughout the world, is comprised of small glass spheres with trace concentrations of neurotoxic metal(loid)s. Findings from this research show that children with fly ash in their homes are significantly more likely to have poorer school performance than children without fly ash in their homes.

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Data availability

The datasets generated and analyzed during the current study are not available for other researchers or the public. Upon completion of the study, our research team agreed with all the study participants to delete all data related to this study. The statement was included in the written consent form.


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The authors would like to acknowledge and thank Lindsay Tompkins, Chisom Odoh, Jack Pfeiffer, Carol Norton, Jillian Winn, and Paula Kingsolver for their assistance with the overall study. We would like to thank the community and community leaders for their participation in this study. In addition, the authors would like to acknowledge C Hanchette (deceased, October 2017) for her contributions to the overall study. This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences [R01ES024757, PI Zierold]. This manuscript represents the author’s research, ideas, and opinions. The funding agency had no role in the development of the manuscript, analysis of the data, or submission of the work. This manuscript does not reflect the views or opinions of the agency.

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Authors and Affiliations



KMZ: Conceptualization, Methodology, Investigation, Data Curation, Writing Original Draft, Supervision, Project Administration, Funding Acquisition. JVM: Methodology, Formal Analysis, Writing-Original Draft, Visualization. GNB: Methodology, Writing-Review & Editing, Supervision. CGS: Methodology, Investigation, Data Curation, Writing—Review & Editing. CHZ: Data Curation, Investigation, Writing—Review & Editing. LS: Investigation, Data Curation, Writing—Review & Editing, Supervision, Project Administration.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kristina M. Zierold.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Ethics approval

This study was approved by the University of Louisville Institutional Review Board (IRB #14.1069).

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Zierold, K.M., Myers, J.V., Brock, G.N. et al. Indoor coal ash and school and social competency among children aged 6–14 years. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol 33, 434–438 (2023).

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