Toxic levels of this mineral in Kentucky streams causes abnormal spine curvatures in fish

Anita Durairaj

The mineral, Selenium, is naturally-occurring and is important for human health. Selenium is found in soil, water, and food. However, at certain levels, it can become toxic to both humans and animals.

In Kentucky, toxic levels of selenium have been found in streams. The source of the toxic selenium is coal mining.

Surface coal mining exposes rock layers and coal seams that contain selenium. The mineral finds its way to streams where it contaminates the surroundings and accumulates in fish and other wildlife.

According to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, "unprecedented levels of toxic selenium are being dumped in Kentucky streams."

One report states that Kentucky has the highest average concentration of selenium in coal - more than any other state.

Selenium pollution is a real problem and both the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and coal mining companies are aware of the issues.

Scientists have set different standards for what levels of selenium are toxic in the streams but not everyone agrees to those values.

What is certain is that fishes in contaminated streams suffer a myriad of problems including abnormal spine curvatures. Some fish may develop "S-curve" deformities and deformed mouths and jaws as well as fin and eye irregularities.

When humans ingest fish that have been contaminated with selenium, there are health risks such as neurological effects, brittle nails, and hair.

Efforts are currently being made to monitor fish populations and chemical pollution from coal ash in streams.

Sources: Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Toxic Selenium in Kentucky Streams (handout)

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Trained with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Cincinnati, I write unique and interesting articles focused on science, history, and current events.

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