Evaluation and Integration of Geochemical Indicators for Detecting Trace Levels of Coal Fly Ash in Soils

Zhen Wang, Rachel M. Coyte, Ellen A. Cowan, Heather M. Stapleton, Gary S. Dwyer, Avner Vengosh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Coal combustion residuals (CCRs), in particular, coal fly ash, are one of the major industrial solid wastes in the U.S., and due to their high concentrations of toxic elements, they could pose environmental and human health risks. Yet detecting coal fly ash in the environment is challenging given its small particle size. Here, we explore the utility and sensitivity of using geochemical indicators (trace elements, Ra nuclides, and Pb stable isotopes), combined with physical observation by optical point counting, for detecting the presence of trace levels of coal fly ash particles in surface soils near two coal-fired power plants in North Carolina and Tennessee. Through experimental work, mixing models, and field data, we show that trace elements can serve as a first-order detection tool for fly ash presence in surface soils; however, the accuracy and sensitivity of detection is limited for cases with low fly ash proportion (i.e., <10%) in the soil, which requires the integration of more robust Ra and Pb isotopic tracers. This study revealed the presence of fly ash particles in surface soils from both the recreational and residential areas, which suggests the fugitive emission of fly ash from the nearby coal-fired power plants.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10387-10397
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number15
StatePublished - 3 Aug 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • Pb isotopes
  • Ra isotopes
  • coal combustion residuals
  • coal fly ash
  • soil geochemistry
  • surface soils
  • trace elements

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Chemistry
  • Environmental Chemistry


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