Scientists at Duke University have developed new tests that can detect coal ash soil contamination with a new level of sensitivity. 

The four new tests are designed to recognize the presence of tiny fly ash particles which current tests might miss.

Fly ash is generated when a power plant burns pulverized coal, and its toxic particles are often microscopic in size.

While most of the ash can be captured and disposed of, some is emitted into the environment and can accumulate in soil downwind from the plant.

According to a news release, the new tests can detect and measure how much fly ash has accumulated with an unprecedented level of certainty.

Zhen Wang, a doctoral student who led the research, says that being able to trace the contamination to its source “is essential for protecting public health and identifying where remediation efforts should be focused.”

Coal ash contamination has been a controversial issue in North Carolina, particularly following a 2014 Dan River spill which prompted cleanup efforts at a number of Duke Energy power plants.

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