The Cancer Risk Associated with Residential Exposure to Soil Containing Radioactive Coal Combustion Residuals

Risk Anal. 2018 Jun;38(6):1107-1115. doi: 10.1111/risa.12924. Epub 2017 Nov 3.


Coal combustion residuals (CCRs) are composed of various constituents, including radioactive materials. The objective of this study was to utilize methodology on radionuclide risk assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to estimate the potential cancer risks associated with residential exposure to CCR-containing soil. We evaluated potential radionuclide exposure via soil ingestion, inhalation of soil particulates, and external exposure to ionizing radiation using published CCR radioactivity values for 232 Th, 228 Ra, 238 U, and 226 Ra from the Appalachia, Illinois, and Powder River coal basins. Mean and upper-bound cancer risks were estimated individually for each radionuclide, exposure pathway, and coal basin. For each radionuclide at each coal basin, external exposure to ionizing radiation contributed the greatest to the overall risk estimate, followed by incidental ingestion of soil and inhalation of soil particulates. The mean cancer risks by route of exposure were 2.01 × 10-6 (ingestion), 6.80 × 10-9 (inhalation), and 3.66 × 10-5 (external), while the upper bound cancer risks were 3.70 × 10-6 (ingestion), 1.18 × 10-8 (inhalation), and 6.15 × 10-5 (external), using summed radionuclide-specific data from all locations. The upper bound cancer risk from all routes of exposure was 6.52 × 10-5 . These estimated cancer risks were within the EPA's acceptable cancer risk range of 1 × 10-6 to 1 × 10-4 . If the CCR radioactivity values used in this analysis are generally representative of CCR waste streams, then our findings suggest that CCRs would not be expected to pose a significant radiological risk to residents living in areas where contact with CCR-containing soils might occur.

Keywords: Coal combustion residuals; radionuclides; risk assessment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Coal
  • Dust
  • Humans
  • Inhalation Exposure
  • Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control
  • Radiation, Ionizing
  • Radioisotopes / analysis*
  • Radium / analysis
  • Risk Assessment*
  • Soil Pollutants, Radioactive / analysis*
  • Soil*
  • Thorium / analysis
  • United States
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency
  • Uranium / analysis


  • Coal
  • Dust
  • Radioisotopes
  • Soil
  • Soil Pollutants, Radioactive
  • Thorium-232
  • Uranium
  • Thorium
  • Radium